The global energy crisis has brought the climate to a crossroads
So much for the fight against the climate crisis, it is the energy crisis that takes precedence. And it couldn’t have happened at a more crucial time.
In just three weeks, leaders and negotiators will meet for the international climate talks at COP26 in the Scottish city of Glasgow. Momentum was building to end coal and accelerate the global transition from climate-modifying fossil fuels to renewable energy before the crisis hit.
But a rush to fossil fuels worries some experts that this moment could slow down that transition, particularly on the phase-out of coal, now closer than at any time in history.
“The concern with the electricity crisis in China is that it seems to reinforce the argument of pro-coal interests there that the transition to renewables is happening too quickly,” said Christine Shearer, director of the Global Energy Monitor program for coal, which tracks fossil fuel use around the world.
As winter approaches and the global economy rebounds from the Covid-19 pandemic faster than the world anticipated, governments are forced to seek readily available sources of energy. The infrastructure that exists to harness energy from renewables like wind and solar is simply not sufficient to meet demand.
“A lot of policymakers are panicking in some ways about the social response,” said Lisa Fischer, program manager of the European climate think tank E3G.
Spending more money on fossil fuels is not a solution, she said, and some short-term solutions conflict with longer-term sustainable goals.
A better response would be to “supercharge” funding for the deployment of renewable energy and energy efficiency programs, including the start-up of infrastructure projects that have been hampered by the pandemic.
And there comes the dichotomy of the crisis – the world can either “turbocharge” the efforts in renewables or slow them down, and rely more on fossil fuels, as it is now.
A geopolitical mess
There are several reasons for the energy crisis, beyond the rebound of the pandemic. Energy from renewables was lower than expected – in the UK and mainland Europe the summer was less windy than usual, so wind power was underdelivered. In China, lower rainfall means less energy coming from the country’s hydroelectric plants.
Chinese officials have kept mountains of coal imported from Australia on the docks for months, refusing to show Australia that it is willing to take its exports as the two countries remain cold over Canberra’s calls for an investigation on the origins of Covid-19. This has only worsened the electricity shortage in the country.
China was already fueling its economic comeback with dozens of new coal-fired power plants, but the more recent increase in output is a problem for COP26 – China was just starting to show signs that it was ready to play a role in the fuel end date.
A European split
China is not alone. Faced with this crisis, European leaders are signaling that it is difficult to stop fossil fuels.
Last month, the UK commissioned an old coal-fired power plant to meet demand for electricity. And some countries in the European Union are considering keeping coal and oil-fired power plants open beyond their shutdown dates to avoid similar blackouts.
It also caused a rift in the European Parliament, where the climate crossroads are clear as day. Faced with an urgent crisis, some leaders argue that without an effective short-term action plan to tackle inflated consumers’ energy bills, the EU’s Green Deal will lose support.
Kadri Simson, EU Energy Commissioner, said the Green Deal would be the “only sustainable solution to Europe’s energy challenge” and that more renewable energy and better energy efficiency was the answer.
“We have to state that the current price hike has little to do with our climate policies, and a lot to do with our dependence on imported fossil fuels and relative prices,” Simson said Wednesday.
“Wind and solar have continued to produce the cheapest electricity in Europe in recent months. They are not exposed to price volatility.”
A ripple effect in the United States
In the United States, a crisis is brewing around soaring gasoline prices, a problem linked to the larger energy problem. Some countries struggling to get enough natural gas are turning to oil to fill the electricity supply gap.
In August, Biden called on OPEC + – a bloc of major oil-producing countries and their allies – to increase global oil production after soaring gasoline prices because an increase in supply would lower prices at the pump.
“Ahead of the climate conference, the backdrop demonstrates the extreme impacts of reliance on fossil fuels – in my opinion, I think that might be enough to push some countries over the fence to really double their reliance on renewables,” said Charles Moore, director of the European program of the think tank Ember Climate.
“I think the UK is a great example. The UK has just come out and committed to completely decarbonising the electricity system by 2035,” he said.
“This is from the host of the climate conference.”
CNN’s Angela Dewan contributed to this report.