Climate Goals are Global – So Is Energy Demand

November 2, 2016

Next week finally marks the long-awaited event.

No, not that one.  We’re referring to the UN climate conference in Morocco Nov. 7, the day before the other event.

For energy and climate policy watchers, the frequent gathering of the global green swarm – NGOs, industry reps, government officials – will hopefully shine further light on how nations plan to reach the climate goal they recognized at the UN climate summit in Paris last December. It may set a course for the next administration, too.

But if the much-ballyhooed Paris accord is to succeed, they’ll have to come up with something more than just lofty speeches from energy experts like Leo DiCaprio.  As they say in the Pentagon, a plan without resources is fantasy. And it is precisely fantasy that is the dangerous indulgence of many activists who do their cause no good by ignoring the reality of global energy needs.  Needs that will not be satisfied by renewable fuels alone.

Achieving the Paris agreement’s goals will require global engagement. So will meeting the realities of today’s energy demands. For the same reason that we don’t look exclusively at North America for emission reductions, we shouldn’t look only here to provide the blueprint for future energy needs. Obviously, OECD countries like the United States will not be the source of growing demand for fossil energy, but the developing world is and will continue to be.

Yes, China will burn less coal over the next two decades than it did in the prior two, but it will continue to burn massive volumes of this cheap and ubiquitous fuel. India is expected to surpass China’s coal consumption within the next decade as its population exceeds China’s. Worldwide, at least 1500 new coal plants are already underway, most in Asia where EPA has no regulatory authority. This is reality.

U.S. climate negotiator Jonathan Pershing appears to understand it, as well as its implications, even if the new sun worshipers do not. “To me,” he told reporters, “carbon capture and storage becomes an essential technology” [Bloomberg BNA].  In fact, all emission reducing technologies will be essential for meeting climate goals, just as all energy sources will be needed to meet burgeoning energy demand from an emerging global middle class.

There are better alternatives. Advanced technologies like super critical pulverized coal can cut CO2 emissions by 40 percent below emissions from conventional coal plants [World Coal Assn]. Carbon capture projects, like those at Kemper and Petra Nova, may well hold the key to an energy future we all want. They’re costly. But we’re told climate change is more so.

The good news is that a new administration won’t pay a political price for backing aggressive, sustainable investments in carbon reduction technologies for coal. An August poll by Morning Consult found seven in 10 voters from both parties support federal investments to make coal-fueled generation cleaner [NMA Aug. 23 release].

We face a choice: acknowledge the reality of the world’s reliance on coal and other fossil fuels and pursue technologies that will continue to reduce emissions, or stay in denial and pretend  the world can meet global energy needs without fossil fuels.