Energy and climate change: what is our role?
Climate change which is already a measurable reality poses a fundamental threat to biodiversity and human development with countries around the world bearing the brunt of its impacts and the associated socio-economic losses. Primarily characterized by global warming, climate change has been exacerbated by human activities that have resulted in the increased atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gasses (GHG) such as water vapor (H2O), carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O).
Energy production and use account for two-thirds of the world’s anthropogenic GHG emissions thereby making it the largest contributor to global GHG emissions. A closer look at figure 1 below shows that power generation is responsible for the bulk of these emissions (44%), followed by manufacturing (19%) and transport (18%).
Figure 1: 2012 Global GHG emissions by sector (Source: World Resources Institute, 2015)
Energy is fundamental to our lives in the 21st century. Not only do all societies require energy services to serve productive processes and meet basic human needs such as cooking, the cost and availability of energy as John Fanchi rightly put it in his book – “significantly impacts our quality of life, the health of national economies, the relationships between nations, and the stability of our environment”.
There are many different sources of energy including coal, oil, gas and renewable resources such as the wind. These primary sources of energy can either be used for direct, final energy consumption or they can be transformed into another form of energy, because before their final energy use in energy end-use sectors such as industry. For instance, coal can either directly be used to produce heat for cooking or it can be used to produce electricity which in turn is used for lighting or powering electrical equipment.
The transformation and the consumption of some forms of energy, not all of them, leads to GHG emissions and therefore contributes to global warming. However, some types of energy such as nuclear power (the second-largest source of low-carbon electricity generation worldwide, after hydropower) or renewable energy might induce some emissions through their life cycle, but they have no direct emissions.
Despite being a major contributor to climate change, the energy sector is one which three climate change phenomena – global warming, changing regional weather patterns (including hydrological patterns) and an increase in extreme weather events – will also tremendously disrupt. A case in point being that the power plants, especially those in coastal areas, will be affected by extreme weather events and rising sea levels as was the case in the 2011 Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster in Japan. Additionally, critical energy transport infrastructure is also at risk, with oil and gas pipelines in coastal areas affected by rising sea levels and those in cold climates affected by thawing permafrost whereas electricity grids will be impacted by storms, and the rise in global temperature may affect electricity generation including thermal and hydroelectric stations in some locations.
In recent years, progress has been made in developing cleaner, more efficient energy technologies but fossil fuels still represent the lion’s share of global energy consumption and the link between global economic output and energy-related GHG emissions though weakened still exists. Therefore, increased effort is still needed if we are to keep open the possibility of limiting the rise in global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels as has been set out in the Paris Agreement.
One indicator of the scale of the challenge to the energy sector is the fact that the total volume of global energy sector CO2 emissions over the past 27 years matched the total level of all previous years. This is mostly attributable to 80% of total primary energy demand being met by fossil fuels. While smaller in magnitude (and less long-lasting in the atmosphere, though with higher global warming potential), methane and nitrous oxide are other powerful GHGs emitted by the energy sector. As shown in figure 2 below, methane accounts for around 10% of energy sector emissions and originates mainly from oil and gas extraction, transformation and distribution. Much of the remainder is nitrous oxide emissions from energy transformation, industry, transport and buildings.
Figure 2: Global anthropogenic energy-related greenhouse-gas emissions by type (Source: OECD/IEA, 2015)
Energy demand is increasing globally, causing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the energy sector also to increase. The trend is set to continue, driven primarily by economic growth and the rising population. Effective action in the energy sector is, consequentially, essential to tackling the climate change problem.
To ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all, seventh sustainable development goal, we ought to pursue the following:
1. Phasing out freely-emitting/ uncapped fossil fuels. This is with the continued use of fossil fuels that are efficient and can be used with some technologies and in particular carbon capture and sequestration
2. Increasing energy efficiency in the industry, buildings and transport sectors
3. Progressively reducing the use of the least-efficient coal-fired power plants and banning their construction
4. Increasing investment in renewable energy technologies such as geothermal, solar and wind in the power sector
Renewable power plants currently account for more than 22% of total global electricity generation (REN21, 2015). Since renewables are a viable, affordable and scalable solution they offer an immediate means to decarbonize the global energy mix. Doubling the share of renewable energy by 2030 could therefore deliver around half of the required emissions reductions and, coupled with energy efficiency, keep the average rise in global temperatures below 2 °C and prevent catastrophic climate change.
5. Gradual phasing out of fossil-fuel subsidies to end-users. Figure 3 below outlines the critical steps of a process to reform fossil-fuel subsidies
Figure 3: Critical steps of a process to reform fossil-fuel subsidies (Source: OECD/IEA, 2015)
6. Reducing methane emissions in oil and gas production
7. Building Low-Carbon Energy System
This is by controlling total fossil fuel consumption, expanding the use of cleaner energies such as natural gas, promoting the development of hydro power, developing nuclear power in a safe and efficient manner, accelerating the development of solar & wind power; and proactively developing geothermal energy, bio-energy and maritime energy;
8. Building Energy Efficient and Low-Carbon Industrial System
This can be achieved by controlling the total expansion of industries with extensive energy consumption and emissions; accelerating the elimination of outdated production capacity and promoting the development of service industry and strategic emerging industries; controlling emissions from key sectors through energy conservation and efficiency improvement; actively controlling greenhouse gas emissions originating from the industrial production process; constructing a recycling-based industrial system and promoting recycling restructure in industrial parks.
9. Increasing Carbon Sinks
This can consist of enhancing afforestation, promoting voluntary tree planting by all citizens, continuing the implementation of key ecological programs, and strengthening the protection and restoration of wetlands and other carbon sinks.
10. Enhancing Support in terms of Science and Technology
Research and development (R&D) and commercialization demonstration for low-carbon technologies such as energy conservation, renewable energy, advanced nuclear power technologies and carbon capture, utilization and storage needs to be strengthened while the technologies of utilizing carbon dioxide to enhance oil recovery and coal-bed methane recovery are promoted.
11. Increasing Financial and Policy Support
Preferential taxation policies for promoting the development of new energy should be implemented. The reform in the pricing and taxation regime for energy-and resource-based products also needs to advanced and green credit mechanisms improved.
12. Improving greenhouse gas emission statistics covering areas including energy activity, industrial process, agriculture, land-use change, forestry and waste treatment
13. Accelerating the transformation of energy production and consumption, optimizing the energy mix, improving energy efficiency