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Energy and climate change
Climate change is already happening – wreaking devastation on communities and ecosystems around the world. Without urgent action to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions, we face a far worse situation of runaway climate change, with impacts which would dramatically overshadow anything we are seeing today. Exceeding climate tipping points brings a near certainty of even greater hunger, drought, flooding, and temperature and weather extremes, as well as mass extinctions and the forced migration of billions of people, combined with the breakdown of social order and political systems in many places.
Governments have identified an increase of two degrees Celsius in global mean temperature above pre-industrial levels as a key threshold. They have committed to efforts to keep global warming below this threshold in order to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. According to NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, average temperatures have climbed 0.8 degrees Celsius around the world since 1880. However, further warming of 0.6 degrees Celsius is thought to be already locked in without any further increase in the concentration of global greenhouse gas emissions. Furthermore, despite over 20 years of international climate negotiations under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), global emissions are showing no sign of abatement. The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – the official intergovernmental body tasked with the assessment of climate change and its potential environmental and socio-economic impacts – published in September 2013, asserts that unless we change our current emissions pathway, warming above four degrees Celsius by 2100 is ‘as likely as not’.
Scientists have argued that in order to keep global temperature increase below two degrees we need to make global emissions peak and start declining by 2015. However, even a two degree increase is no longer considered safe – at best it is the border between dangerous and extremely dangerous climate change. Even a rise of 1.5 degrees is considered to be dangerous, with predictions of highly destructive impacts for significant parts of the world’s population, including water scarcity, hunger and displacement for millions in Africa, as well as threatening the very existence of low-lying, small island states.
In 2007 the IPCC identified that nearly 26 per cent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions resulted from the global energy supply and a further 13 per cent from transport. In total, a vast 57 per cent of global GHG emissions resulted from CO2 released by fossil fuel us.
Tackling carbon emissions from the global energy system is therefore absolutely central to stopping climate change and avoiding tipping points that threaten runaway global climate disaster. The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that four fifths of the carbon emissions allowable by 2035, if we are to keep global mean temperature increase below 2 degrees, are already locked in by existing power plants, factories and buildings. If action is not taken by 2017 to reduce emissions and decarbonise the energy supply, then all the allowable additional CO2 emissions would be locked in by energy infrastructure existing at that time.
In deciding how to limit future carbon emissions, it is essential to consider the dramatic differences in per capita emissions between industrialised and industrialising countries, and the differing levels of responsibility of different countries for causing the problem of climate change in the first place. Advanced industrialised countries such as the US and those in Europe have produced three quarters of the total historic CO2 emissions that have accumulated in the atmosphere since 1850, despite only representing 15 per cent of the world’s population. Furthermore, despite the significant increase in emissions from industrialising countries like China in recent decades, per capita emissions remain highly unequal and still skewed significantly towards advanced industrialised countries. A very large proportion of China’s emissions are generated to produce goods for export overseas rather than for domestic consumption.
These differences in the historic and current roles of different countries in causing the climate crisis are reflected in the UNFCCC’s principle of Common But Differentiated Responsibility and Capacity to Act (CBDR). The Convention requires all countries to take decisive action on climate. However, recognising the CBDR principle and the fact that developing countries still have to address pressing social development needs, the UNFCCC commits industrialised countries to acting first and fastest to reduce their emissions, and also to compensate developing countries by funding the ‘incremental costs’ of their actions to develop low-carbon economies and adapt to the unavoidable impacts of climate change.
The IEA estimates of the remaining allowable global carbon emissions to 2035 are therefore made more striking because their timing results in a highly unfair distribution – with the energy, industrial and housing emissions of the minority industrialised world taking up all of the remaining available emissions to 2017, leaving no space for the majority developing world to increase their emissions in order to address basic development needs like energy access, health, education and sanitation. Yet the IEA also predicts that global energy demand will grow by more than one third between 2012 and 2035, with China, India and the Middle East accounting for 60 per cent of the increase.
A dramatic and fundamental shift in how the world produces and consumes energy is needed if we are to stop climate change and avert its worst impacts while also allowing developing countries to meet essential basic development needs. Furthermore, as energy infrastructure takes time to change, this transformation needs to begin as a matter of absolute urgency.
Ending reliance on fossil fuels is one of the most critical parts of this energy transformation. Only 20 per cent of total proven global fossil fuel reserves can be burned unabated if we are to keep global temperature increase below 2 degrees. This leaves up to 80 per cent of the fossil fuel assets of private and public companies and governments technically unburnable. In spite of this, companies are still investing huge amounts in exploring for and developing new fossil fuel reserves.
Energy access and energy poverty
While it is threatening the very existence of humanity on the planet, the energy system is also failing to provide billions of people around the world with sufficient energy to ensure their basic wellbeing and allow them to lead lives with dignity.
According to the IEA, nearly 1.3 billion people – or one fifth of the world’s population – do not have access to electricity, and 2.6 billion people – close to two fifths of the people on the planet – do not have access to clean cooking facilities. Ten countries, four of them in developing Asia and six in sub-Saharan Africa, account for two thirds of the people without electricity, while three countries – China, India and Bangladesh – account for more than half of those people without clean cooking facilities. Furthermore, little improvement in the situation is predicted over the next decade and a half, estimating that 1 billion will still be without access to electricity and 2.6 billion without clean cooking facilities in 2030.
The degree to which access to modern energy services such as electricity is essential for basic wellbeing and living with dignity varies considerably between different communities, regions and nations, depending on a range of factors including culture, lifestyle, climate, and access to locally-available energy resources. Many indigenous communities live comfortably and sustainably without access to such energy services. Yet for very large numbers of people around the world, lack of energy to meet their basic needs is a central problem, and one which directly correlates with the major elements of poverty, including inadequate health care, low education levels and limited employment opportunities.
Furthermore, while the problem of energy exclusion is primarily concentrated in the global South, many people in the advanced industrialised world also struggle to afford sufficient energy to meet their basic needs. Here, the problem is one of capacity to pay rather than energy availability. Definitions of fuel poverty vary, but the most widely used states that a household is fuel poor if it needs to spend 10 per cent or more of its income on all fuel use, including that needed to heat its home adequately. In December 2011, one quarter of households in England and Wales were officially defined as fuel poor, and figures for all fuel poor across Europe are estimated at 50 to 125 million people.
Global inequalities in energy use
Alongside the issues of energy exclusion and poverty there are massive inequalities in energy consumption. Global energy consumption is highly skewed towards the global North, despite the existence of severe fuel poverty, and is grossly unequal. As shown below, average energy use per person in the global North dwarfs that of the least developed countries in the global South and even that of rapidly industrialising countries like China:
In 2008, the US used on average 7,503 kg of oil-equivalent per person per year, Britain 3,395, China 1,598, Uruguay 1,254, Vietnam 698 and Bangladesh only 192xv.
An average Swede consumes over 150 times more electricity compared to an average Tanzanianxvi.
While China is importing and consuming more energy than ever before, energy consumption per head of population in the US and Canada is still roughly twice that in Europe or Japan, more than ten times that in China, nearly 20 times that in India, and about 50 times as high as in the poorest countries of sub-Saharan Africa.
Political insecurity, corruption and conflict
Our current energy system and its reliance on significant natural resource inputs like fossil fuels and land is also a major driver of political insecurity, conflict and corruption worldwide.
In countries that have significant energy resources, struggles among different political factions and intervention by foreign powers for their control are key factors behind increased political insecurity, increased corruption and risk of conflict.
Landmark research in the 1990s, including by economists Jeffrey Sachs and Andrew Warner discovered a strong negative correlation between a country’s dependence on mineral exports (particularly oil), and their gross domestic product (GDP). A whole body of research has since evolved, focusing on the so called ‘resource curse’, where an abundance of natural resources like oil, gas and minerals correlates directly with higher rates of poverty, malnutrition, child illiteracy, corruption, authoritarianism, civil war, indebtedness and other significant social, political and economic problems.
Development specialist Paul Collier has demonstrated that countries in Africa that depend on resource exports such as oil run a significantly greater risk of civil war than countries with no exports. Research has also documented efforts by foreign powers such as the United States to intervene in the domestic political affairs of oil-rich nations, either through ‘soft power’ activities to keep certain political leaders in power contrary to the broader democratic wishes of a country’s population, or harder interventions such as the US strategy of military control over oil reserves in Iraq.
Research on the relationship between corruption, authoritarian governments, conflict, and extractive industries has also found strong evidence of the so called ‘repression effect’, where resource wealth appears to hold back processes of democratisation by supplying governments with funds to support the forces and apparatus of repression.
On the other hand, the recent example of Venezuela’s use of its oil revenue to tackle poverty and fund broad-based socio-economic development under the democratically-elected government of former President Hugo Chavez, suggests that the relationship between natural resource wealth and a range of political, social and economic problems is not necessarily causal. The Venezuela experience points to the importance of other factors in determining the degree to which resource wealth will bring benefits or problems for a country’s wider population. These factors include the democratic mandate and political objectives of the government in power and its ability to resist pressures and interventions from foreign powers, as well as the strength of social movements and civil society and their ability to hold the government to account.
Currently, evidence for the repression effect is strong enough to suggest that if a country has natural resource wealth, then there will be significant incentives for political factions and foreign powers to seek to exploit those resources for their own gain, to the detriment of the security and wellbeing of people and communities.
Finally, the way we produce and consume energy is extremely wasteful, especially in industrialised countries where the vast majority of energy and energy-intensive products are consumed.
In terms of energy production, centralised energy generations systems are argued to waste more than two thirds of their original energy input. Out of every 100 units of energy:
- 61.5 units are lost through inefficient generation and heat wastage
- 3.5 unites are lost via transmission and distribution
- 13 units are lost via inefficient end use
- Only 22 units are actually utilised.
In addition, our economies are becoming increasingly dependent on the use of disposable materials such as plastic and paper packaging, rather than reusable and recyclable materials, as well as on cheap, short-life consumer products rather than higher quality, long-life products. Large quantities of energy are used in the production of these disposable materials and short-lived products, including the energy required to extract, transport and process raw material inputs like timber and crude oil, to manufacture products and materials, and to transport them to their points of sale and use.