Silver Lining in a Bad Climate Report
Renewables are having an impact
Did you see it? 2022 resulted in the highest carbon emissions EVER, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). Emissions from energy were up 0.9%. This is not the path we want to be on. Emissions need to be reduced, not grown. One would hope we’d be making a little bit better progress than this by now. Apparently, post-pandemic economic activity is up, coal use as an energy source is up, and travel (by all means) is up. One might have expected the growth to be much higher given the economic recovery.
Therein lies a silver lining. “Without clean energy, the growth in CO2 emissions would have been nearly three times as high,” Fatih Birol, the IEA’s executive director, said in a statement.
Indeed, IEA said that the deployment of renewables, EVs, and heat pumps eliminated 550 megatons of carbon—that’s against over 36 gigatons emitted, so you can see that energy without carbon remains a small part of the energy pie. It has replaced only about 1.5% of total carbon emissions. This isn't nearly enough, there's a long way to go, and that means a ton of opportunity to keep helping the world transition.
John Sterman, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan Sustainability Initiative got it right. As he described it, nations must subsidize renewables, improve energy efficiency, electrify industry and transportation, set a high price for carbon emissions, reduce deforestation, plant trees and rid the system of coal. We can translate this into actions for individuals, businesses, governments, and other organizations. But we can and must also make it a clarion call for everyone who can to direct their professional energy toward these solutions.
Dedicating Professional Time and Energy
So the first and most effective thing anyone can do is re-orient their career toward the development or deployment of technology and/or policy along the lines Sterman suggests. There are literally thousands of open jobs in the private and government sectors for sustainability professionals, engineers, installers, marketers and salespeople, and project managers… nearly every role one can imagine is needed in the industries that are helping convert the economy. Filling one of those roles effectively is one of the single most important contributions anyone can make to the transition to a carbonless future.
How Policy Drives Carbon Capture Investment
After that, there are big policy struggles that affect everything. In the short term, the priorities are putting a price on carbon, subsidizing renewables, dealing with deforestation, and ridding the system of coal. In the longer term, some kind of population management is probably necessary. All of these are issues of policy and they all involve a clash of values and interests. That’s why they are struggles.
The impact of policies like carbon pricing is profound. Although many people rightfully see a moral outrage in the idea that you can buy your way to polluting, the reality is that the corporate world sees this trend coming and they are already investing to deal with their own mess and the new high costs. Industry news is full of large investments in carbon capture and sequestration projects, known as CCS (carbon capture and sequestration) or CCUS (carbon capture, utilization, and storage). Companies are investing in scrubbing their own operations, offering sequestration services, and building pipelines to move the carbon. Here is a sampling:
Occidental’s BlueBonnet Hub is a Texas-based sequestration hub served by pipelines being built by Enterprise Produce Partners and others. It includes a lease commitment on 55,000 acres for sequestration.
Petronas in Iraq initiates carbon capture in Iraq.
Aker Carbon Capture is building plants in Norway and The Netherlands. It is a pure carbon business focused on CCUS—carbon capture, utilization, and storage .
Project Tundra in North Dakota CCS is a $1.5 billion project to move carbon captured from five states to a location in North Dakota for sequestration.
Many people are skeptical of carbon capture technology, especially because fossil fuel companies are adopting it. But these companies are investing billions of dollars in these facilities and systems, and when the money gets real like that, there is a reason for it. Powermag.com, an industry magazine, sees it as a booming business. IEA, in a report separate from the one quoted above, says, “Reaching net zero will be virtually impossible without CCUS.” Most of this investment is driven by cost avoidance, and that cost is imposed by the public sector. Policy matters.
Individual Consumer and Business Actions
Individuals and businesses have a role to play as well. Each of us can undertake the key tenets necessary—electrify your equipment and appliances (including vehicles), make them very efficient, and source your electricity with wind, solar, geothermal, or another non-burning renewable. These actions have an impact on your directly manageable emissions.
The Special Role of Electric Utilities
Utilities have a very special role to play because utilities can construct green energy projects and effectively force their customers to use green energy. After all, that's what the utility chooses to supply. A great example of this is the electric utilities in Minnesota where emissions from electric generation have dropped by 54% since 2005. They provide more power with 54% less emissions. How have they done that? By sourcing power from wind and solar. As a customer, you will never even know the difference, nor will you care. You get your power, it is clean, it is cheap, and the world is a better place. Only the utilities have the power to make that happen.
People Are Getting It and We Are Taking Action
Let’s come back to the IEA’s report. Fatih Birol was clear: even a 1% increase has to be seen as a failure. The world is at a critical point, and any gain is bad. But people are beginning to understand and take action, even if it is sometimes for the wrong reasons. Industry is capturing carbon and building carbon management facilities and projects. People are electrifying home, vehicles, and business equipment. We subscribe to solar and wind farms, and our utilities are increasingly adopting the more cost-effective alternative of solar, wind, geothermal, etc., thereby leaving us with little choice but to use good, clean energy. I read this report as a good indicator that we are finally moving, even as I worry that we are not moving fast enough.
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