The West’s 2050 net-zero emission goal did not seem wildly out of reach last summer. Plans were being made everywhere to shut coal burners, ramp up green energy and send fossil-fuel-burning cars to the scrapheap. New clean industries would emerge, we would all breathe uncontaminated air, and global average temperatures would stop rising, preventing Earth from turning into solar system bacon.
Then came the Ukraine war and the decarbonization trend went into reverse. Russian President Vladimir Putin has turned energy into a weapon, gravely wounding the promised renewable-energy revolution that had been the hallmark save-the-planet policy of almost every industrialized country.
Normally, high oil and gas prices trigger a rush into low- or zero-carbon alternatives. In the 1973-1974 Arab oil embargo years, when prices quadrupled, the Detroit auto makers suddenly pursued fuel economy. Cars powered by thundering, gasoline-slurping V8s gave way to small, gutless engines. Another fuel-economy rush, this time coupled with a green-energy drive, came about 15 years ago, when oil galloped toward US$150 a barrel.
Not this time. The net-zero goals now seem like a fantasy. Severe energy shortages are developing as Russia cuts back natural gas deliveries to Europe and the European and North American bans on Russian oil imports are put into place. With renewable energy wholly incapable of filling the gap, finding – and burning – more fossil fuels, not less, is the frenzied pursuit even as prices climb.
Several European countries, including Germany, once a leader in the carbon-neutrality drive, are busy reopening coal plants. New pipelines from the gas-rich Eastern Mediterranean are being planned and virtually every European country with a coastline is trying to build liquefied natural gas (LNG) import terminals. Germany, incredibly, has none – that is how assured it was of endless supplies of Russian pipeline gas.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is due in Canada next month to beg energy companies and governments to commit to the construction of LNG export terminals on the East Coast. Meanwhile, European Union lawmakers this week voted in favour of calling gas and nuclear power “green” or “sustainable” sources of energy. If the new rules are accepted by the EU’s member states – a near certainty if they don’t want to freeze in the dark this winter and next – billions of euros in private investment and government subsidies would be unlocked for new fossil-fuel projects.
Gas was supposed to be yesterday’s fuel. Yes, it produces almost 50 per cent less carbon dioxide than coal, but it is still a dirty, planet-warming energy source. Worse, gas production and the pipelines that carry the fuel are prone to leaks of methane. Over 20 years, methane is about 90 times more effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.
Gas is now being billed as a “transition” fuel to renewable energy. How long that transition will last is unknown, but sometime beyond 2050 would not be a good guess. The average lifespan of a gas plant is 30 years, meaning the ones under construction will still be producing electricity when the net-zero goal was supposed to have been met.
Europe is not the only region where the fight against climate change has suddenly lost all momentum. It is happening the United States, too, but not because of Mr, Putin’s weaponization of oil and gas. The American effort was sabotaged by the U.S. Supreme Court. It ruled last week that the government could not end coal-fired power generation without “clear Congressional authorization,” gutting the powers of the Environmental Protection Agency to do so.
Mr. Putin and his war cannot take all the blame for the European energy crisis. Since the 2015 Paris climate summit, which sought to limit the global average temperature increase to 1.5 degrees C over pre-industrial levels, the top global energy companies have been busy scaling back investment. The pandemic made them reduce spending even more as demand dried up. Shortages were the inevitable results as economies recovered; oil and gas prices began to rise well before Russia invaded Ukraine in February.
Some European leaders now want energy security – code for more oil and gas – to take priority over the green transition. Writing in the Financial Times this week, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki asked for lower carbon prices in the EU emissions trading system to save money. Lower prices, of course, would only make coal burners cheaper to operate.
The upshot is that the net-zero 2050 goal is looking highly elusive. Reviving Europe’s nuclear fleet would be one sensible option, but the powerful Green party in Germany, Europe’s biggest power consumer, will not hear of it. The last three German nukes are to be switched off later this year; their output will be largely replaced by coal burners.
Green hydrogen – hydrogen produced by renewable power – shows enormous promise but might take decades to develop into a widely used, competitive fuel. Some environmental groups and scientists have called for a renewable energy “Manhattan Project,” in which virtually unlimited resources would be used to create a clean energy source that we cannot even imagine today. But that too seems unlikely as governments become weary of lavish spending.
The obvious solution to this mess is to replace the 2050 net-zero goal with 2060 or 2070 – and pray that the planet is not toast by then.
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