Notwithstanding a flood of upbeat headlines and stories in the last 24 months, chronicling the falling price of clean energy and the rapid expansion of solar and wind generation, “the world is, unfortunately, not moving away from fossil fuels,” researchers Sean Sweeney and John Treat write in a white paper for Trade Unions for Energy Democracy.
Far from it, they say. In fact, “much of the recent optimism is misplaced, misleading, and disarming. It must be rejected and replaced with a more sober perspective.”
Over the months and years, The Energy Mix and the publications we monitor have noted how wind is supplying more than half the power consumed in Texas (home to Houston, capital of the world’s oil business), and how solar is cheaper than natural gas in other parts of the United States and could be the world’s least expensive energy source by 2025 (it’s already undercutting coal in India). We’ve written about data from the U.S. Department of Energy, explaining why clean energy prices will fall in the years to come, and studies that show renewables with enough muscle to perform the economy’s heavy lifting.
Sweeney and Treat are unimpressed. Writing the latest in a series of policy papers for the TEUD, a global initiative to “advance democratic direction and control of energy in a way that promotes solutions to the climate crisis, energy poverty, the degradation of both land and people, and responds to the attacks on workers’ rights and protections,” the researchers give a blunt assessment of the world’s continued primary reliance on fossil fuels.
“The major recent studies,” they contend, “leave little doubt that the world is not moving away from fossil fuels. On the contrary, they show that although there are changes taking place within the overall energy economy, what is happening cannot be considered a full-force transition to a renewables-based energy system. Renewables are today a thorn in the side of major fossil fuel interests (particularly coal companies), but they are not seriously challenging the dominance of fossil-fuel-based power.”
Measured against the targets in the Paris agreement, “the progress in renewable energy deployment to date, while very real, is profoundly inadequate in terms of reducing emissions to levels that are consistent with the ‘well below 2 degrees Celsius’ threshold,” they add.
The two authors concede that optimists have found validation in the decline of the coal industry, falling investment in fossil energy, and rising investment in clean sources, as well as the decoupling of economic growth from energy consumption, slowing energy demand, and the levelling-off greenhouse gas emissions.
However, they unpack several of these apparent trends, noting that energy demand is expected to continue to grow through at least 2040, rising over current levels by somewhere between one-third and half. The fossil industry’s financial woes, they note, have more to do with an oversupply of oil than competition from clean energy providers.
Meanwhile, despite eye-watering rates of growth, “it is highly misleading to suggest that renewable energy is displacing fossil fuel-based power,” the pair asserts. “At the end of 2015, wind and solar PV combined still generated just 4.9% of global electrical power. The percentage of electricity generated by fossil fuels—66% in 2015, according to the IEA—has barely changed since 1990. Other key economic sectors (most obviously transport) continue to be almost entirely dependent on fossil fuels.”
Finding “no basis for the belief that a substantial transition away from fossil fuels is either imminent or inevitable,” the researchers say it is “distracting and politically disarming” for clean energy advocates to pretend that one is under way. “By promoting a false optimism, the advocates of ‘green growth’ have decoupled their own ideologically-driven aspirations from indisputable and genuinely grave realities.”
In response, Treat and Sweeney call for “energy systems controlled by ordinary people, in partnership with well-run and accountable public agencies, to manage and reduce energy demand while providing electrical power to everyone for basic needs and truly sustainable forms of human and social development.”