In all of these cases, the result of greater efficiency has been an increase in energy use and emissions — not least because it improved access to the fossil-resource base.
Nations’ efforts to rely on renewable energy supplies are similarly ineffective, given that the displaced fossil-fuel-based energy remains economically attractive, which means that it is used elsewhere or kept for use at a later time.
And, in the case of rapidly developing economies, like China, renewable-energy deployment is not replacing fossil fuels at all; instead, renewable energy sources are supplementing a constrained fuel supply to facilitate faster economic growth. In short, placing all bets on renewable-energy uptake outpacing efficiency-driven growth, and assuming that enhanced efficiency will drive down demand, may be a foolish gamble.
Instead, policymakers should adopt a new climate paradigm that focuses on limiting cumulative emissions. This requires, first and foremost, recognizing that, while new energy technologies will eventually outperform fossil fuels practically and economically, demand for fossil fuels to meet growing energy needs will underpin their extraction and use for decades to come.
Most importantly, it highlights the need for climate policy that focuses on the deployment of CCS systems, which use various industrial processes to capture carbon dioxide from fossil-fuel use and then store it in underground geological formations, where it cannot accumulate in the biosphere. Consuming a tonne of fossil fuel, but capturing and storing the emissions, is very different from shifting or delaying its consumption.
Unfortunately, a policy framework built on this thinking remains elusive. The EU’s recently released 2030 framework for climate and energy policies maintains the focus on domestic policies aimed at boosting efficiency and deployment of renewable energy. While the framework mentions CCS, whether the EU commits to its deployment remains to be seen.
Rallying support and political will for CCS — rather than for derivative approaches that misconstrue the nature of the problem — will be the real challenge for 2030 and beyond.
David Hone is chief climate change adviser at Royal Dutch Shell.
Copyright: Project Syndicate