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jeffrey simpson

About 80 per cent of global energy consumption is based on fossil fuels, according to the International Energy Agency. This consumption is the major reason for global warming that produces climate change. Reducing the share will take a long time; eliminating fossil fuels completely is a pipe dream.

Fossil fuels – coal, oil and natural gas – will be with the world for a very, very long time because they are abundant, cheap and reliable. Alternatives such as solar and wind and tidal power are more expensive and produce energy only intermittently.

The idea that renewables will any time soon replace fossil fuels is greenwash, to turn the meaning of a common environmental word on its head. Renewables are growing in importance in some parts of the world, but they are far, far from replacing fossil fuels.

It is said, correctly, that about 13 per cent of energy today worldwide comes from renewables, and the share is growing. But this 13 per cent exaggerates the impact of what we think of as renewable energy, because it includes burning wood, charcoal and animal dung, as anyone who has visited India can tell from the acrid smell in the air.

Renewables would of course include nuclear energy, but most (not all) environmentalists detest nuclear power. Getting a nuclear power plant built in most western countries is difficult to impossible, so fierce is local reaction. (Germany is shutting down its reactors.)

Wind power is terrific, but for the fact that wind blows intermittently. Figuring out how to store intermittent energy remains a technological challenge. Wind and solar both need backup energy for peak periods or when those sources cannot supply enough energy. Fossil fuels provide the backup.

Then there is the Not In My Backyard syndrome, witness to which in Canada is the hostile reaction to turbines on the islands off Kingston or the shoreline of Lake Huron in Ontario.

Just imagine in British Columbia, where environmentalists fulminate against fossil fuels, pipelines and tanker traffic, if a thousand or so wind turbines producing renewable power were proposed for both sides of the Georgia Strait from Horseshoe Bay to Powell River and from Victoria to Comox.

Coasts are often where wind blows strongly. The mere mention of the idea – or putting the turbines on mountainsides near the coast – would turn every B.C. greenie purple with rage.

Renewable technologies are becoming cheaper, which helps them gain market share. But oil, too, has become sharply cheaper, even in countries which do not subsidize the product.

Cheaper oil invites higher consumption. For the foreseeable future the world will be awash with oil, especially when more Iranian oil joins supply international supply chains and technology unlocks more tight oil – although anyone predicting long-term oil prices might make money writing books or giving speeches about the future while only guessing.

No matter what pledges are made to reduce carbon emissions at the Paris Climate Change conference, worldwide energy use is going to continue climbing. The challenge – and there is no solution yet – is to decouple greater energy use from higher carbon emissions. That decoupling happened for the first time in 2014. It must accelerate fast and be sustained for the rise in global warming to be kept under 2 C.

China's emissions are going to keep rising until 2030. Can one be sure about China's numbers when the country recently admitted it had under-reported coal consumption by 17 per cent from 2000 to 2013?

India's needs are immense. The country is the largest importer of coal and the second-largest coal producer. India will rely massively on coal – the most polluting of all fossil fuels – to provide electricity for 240 million people without it. These Indians represent about one-fifth of the world's population without electricity.

Other less populous developing countries will be using much more energy, often from fossil fuels. And then there are the Middle Eastern oil producers who subsidize the use of oil at home and have little interest in climate change.

None of these geopolitical and domestic political realities is pleasant to contemplate if one worries about global warming. A whole lot has to be done, on many fronts, to slow down warming.

It is better, however, to understand how hard the challenge will be rather than be beguiled by loose talk or frightened by apocalyptic rhetoric from environmentalists.

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