It ain’t necessarily so…

In a recent posting, McKinsey offered some thoughts on how global energy use will develop up to mid-century (Energy 2050: Insights from the ground up). They used available data and historical trends to model patterns of use based on a business-as-usual scenario, that is, with no major changes to technology or trends in energy use or efficiency. As for any projection forward for several decades, the only thing we know for certain is that this will be wrong, but at least we can get at flavour of what steady progress would result in, ignoring the inevitable unforeseen factors and events.

The McKinsey projection is for energy demand to continue to grow, albeit at about 0.7% annually compared to the 2% of the recent past. The drop in rate of growth is put down to efficiency increases. The continued growth is almost certain; the declining rate seems a reasonable supposition, although the likely figure is debatable. The study also predicts the rise in the demand for electricity to be double that for energy for the transport sector.

Despite a projected growth in the share of renewable energy, the other clear conclusion is that fossil fuels will still represent about three quarters of all primary energy demand in 2050. This pattern puts carbon dioxide emissions on an upward path, peaking at about 14% higher than today in 2035 and then declining as coal is increasingly replaced by gas (very likely) and renewables (more debatable, without big technology changes) and motor transport becomes more efficient (definitely) and electric car penetration increases significantly (don’t hold your breath).

So far, so good: the projections are presented with a health warning and they should not be taken as gospel. However, the purpose of so many energy stories today is not to make a point about generation capacity, energy security or efficiency, important though they are. At the end of this piece we read that the projected rise in greenhouse gas emissions “…is not what needs to happen to keep the planet from warming another two degrees, the goal of the 2015 Paris climate conference.”

While the energy projections are hedged around with assumptions, the bald statement of the assumed temperature rise associated with the projected CO2 emissions is taken as fact rather than the output of a range of climate models, as it actually is. Now, there is a chance that this may indeed happen but, despite the headlines we have seen about 2016 breaking temperature records (timed to coincide with COP 22 in Marrakech, for example 2016 set to be hottest year on record), the evolution of average temperatures over the past two decades has been very far from the projections from the IPCC range of models.

As the Telegraph reported, “Another year. Another record. The high temperatures we saw in 2015 are set to be beaten in 2016,” said Petteri Taalas, the head of the World Meteorological Organization. But the other way of looking at this is that 2016 has seen an intense El Niño, so virtually guaranteeing a record, as in 1998. Just as one swallow doesn’t make a summer, so one record doesn’t make a trend. If the hypothesised positive feedback mechanism of the enhanced greenhouse effect was a reality, then we should have seen average temperatures within the range projected by the climate models.

There is no doubt that the world is on average currently enjoying somewhat warmer conditions than prevailed a century or so ago. There is also no doubt that at least some of this is due to human influence. Even without our large-scale use of fossil fuels, we and our forebears have transformed much of the countryside, deforested large areas and taken up the highly unnatural process of cultivating the land. What is far from clear, however, is the extent of warming that extra carbon dioxide in the atmosphere contributes.

So far, the warming has been modest, and average temperatures have been pushed up to a significant extent by somewhat less cold nights rather than much hotter days. Although the average may have risen, the existence of many record maximum temperatures from many decades ago suggest that records are not being broken on a regular basis. Nevertheless, the climate change narrative demands that data is cherry-picked and messages spun to highlight the potential catastrophe. Hence ‘hottest’ rather ‘warmest’, for example.

Nowhere is there an acknowledgement that the models are imperfect and their output is only valid for the particular assumptions made (particularly the increasingly doubtful positive feedback mechanism that multiplies the known effect of carbon dioxide). Also, there is a clear trend for modelled projections to be presented as fact.

For example, we see the title Hottest summers the new normal for a piece on the Environmental Research website. This refers in part to a research paper by Mueller et al: “Their results indicate that ‘within the next two decades, half of the world’s population will regularly (every second summer on average) experience regional summer mean temperatures that exceed those of the historically hottest summer,’ even under a moderate emissions pathway.” Note ‘will’; no use of the conditional was felt necessary here.

But much rides on such false certainty. It is used as a justification for the continuation of costly policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions which, with current technologies, can have only limited effectiveness. For example, China is put forward as an example to the world because of the large amount of renewable energy generating capacity it is installing (without mentioning that it is also commissioning one coal-fired power station each week).

But China’s CO2 emissions have not yet peaked and, to make matters worse, we read that China’s wind power costs up to twice as much as expected. To quote from this report from the same website, “The team showed that despite the rapid growth of the wind industry in China over the last decade, a large proportion of wind turbines remained offline. ‘In 2010, this number peaked, with 34% of the installed turbines never spinning their blades,’ said Lam. Even when turbines were up and running, the researchers found, faults and failures were common, bringing active turbines to a halt.”

In the UK, Denmark and Germany, the wind turbine fleet is run more efficiently, but still needs essentially 100% backup availability from conventional sources. Without the implicit belief in the infallibility of the enhanced greenhouse hypothesis, a more measured approach might be taken, with a focus on adaptation and technology development. In fact, we may begin to see such a change next year if President-elect Trump starts to reverse US climate change policy. How this will affect policy elsewhere is anyone’s guess, but in practice it will make little difference to global emissions. America will rely increasingly on domestic gas, with much of its coal likely to find a ready market in China.

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