Have we made any progress against carbon emissions?

According to the annual BP Energy Statistic Review of World Energy report that was released in mid-June, 2018, the answer is a stunning “No!”  In 2017, use of fossil fuels grew due to increase in global energy demand, especially of coal. In fact, global energy consumption grew by a very healthy 2.2%, which was the greatest increase in energy consumption since 2013.

All this does not bode well for our battle against emissions.  While there was an increase in the amount of energy from renewables, the amount was substantially lower than what was needed to stem the increases in new emissions from fossil fuel growth and emission increased by 1.6% over the already record level set in 2016.  Electricity is not getting “cleaner and, overall, there was no discernable improvement in power sector fuel mix over the past 20 years, as the percentage of carbon in the electricity sector was the same as it was in 1998, except the absolute amount of energy has grown, so that the net result was much more carbon. Fossil fuels’ share of the market is as high as it was when Kyoto Protocol was signed in 1997.  Consumption of petroleum continues to grow: by 1.7 million barrels per day (mdb) in 2017, an increase from the average of 1.1 mdb of the last ten years. In contrast, percentage of renewables remains at barely 4%.

While reports from the last two years had provided the perception that there was a leveling off of emissions and fossil fuel use, this report saw the resumption of growth in the wrong direction.  Furthermore, the BP report included data on a new area of concern: namely reserves and prices of raw materials important for production of renewable energy: Lithium, cobalt, graphite and rare minerals, needed for batteries, solar panels, and wind turbines. Already, these resources are showing stress, as demand for renewables increases.  Cobalt production grew at .9% annually since 2010, but its price doubled in 2017.  Lithium production has been increasing by an average of 6.8% annually, but its price grew 37% in 2017.  This is not good for the long-term prospects of renewables, whose growth is tied closely with its ability to meet the price pressure coming from a market saturated with low-cost gas.  According to Gerardo Honty writing a precis of the BP report in Climate & Capitalism:

“Often one loses sight of the fact that, while the source of energy may be renewable, such as sun or wind, the technology necessary for its capture is not. The minerals, metals and other raw materials necessary for making photovoltaic cells, windmills and batteries are finite, not renewable and in some cases are rare. Their exploitation brings growing economic and energy costs – in addition to environmental damage – and data on reserves and prices has become necessary. The appearance for the first time of this information in the annual BP report is a clear signal that these factors are beginning to preoccupy energy planners.”

Time to try an integrated approach, rather than arguing about which technologies are better than the other

Right on the heels of this discouraging BP report, arrived a new report published in the august journal Science exploring a new way of thinking about the solution. Boldly entitled Net-zero emissions energy systems, the report was published by 32 scientific luminaries, which include Steven J. Davis, Nathan S. Lewis, Christopher T. M. Clack, Armond Cohen, Christopher B. Field, Bryan Hannegan, Eric Ingersoll, Katharine J. Mach, Michael Mastrandrea, Joan Ogden, Per F. Peterson, Joseph Stagner, Jessika E. Trancik, Chi-Jen Yang and Ken Caldeira, and it provides a fully, integrated, thoughtful, and inclusive overview of the possibilities for building a zero emissions energy system.  The authors do not review the social or political obstacles, rather they review all of the existing technologies available to address the broad, interconnected system needs of getting to net zero given current constraints including the cost and effectiveness of the options, without consideration of the popularity or lack thereof of those options.  They aim to present the best options for solutions, and give the pros and cons, rather than eliminating any for non-technical reasons: Here is their mission, in their own words:  

Net emissions of CO2 by human activities—including not only energy services and industrial production but also land use and agriculture—must approach zero in order to stabilize global mean temperature. Energy services such as light-duty transportation, heating, cooling, and lighting may be relatively straightforward to decarbonize by electrifying and generating electricity from variable renewable energy sources (such as wind and solar) and dispatchable (“on-demand”) nonrenewable sources (including nuclear energy and fossil fuels with carbon capture and storage). However, other energy services essential to modern civilization entail emissions that are likely to be more difficult to fully eliminate. These difficult-to-decarbonize energy services include aviation, long-distance transport, and shipping; production of carbon-intensive structural materials such as steel and cement; and provision of a reliable electricity supply that meets varying demand. Moreover, demand for such services and products is projected to increase substantially over this century. The long-lived infrastructure built today, for better or worse, will shape the future.

Here, we review the special challenges associated with an energy system that does not add any CO2 to the atmosphere (a net-zero emissions energy system). We discuss prominent technological opportunities and barriers for eliminating and/or managing emissions related to the difficult-to-decarbonize services; pitfalls in which near-term actions may make it more difficult or costly to achieve the net-zero emissions goal; and critical areas for research, development, demonstration, and deployment. It may take decades to research, develop, and deploy these new technologies.

Please give this remarkable and authoritative paper a read and pass it on to anyone who insists that we can afford to solve the climate change by refusing to consider all of the options available, when the sum total of all human achievement, human experience and human prosperity is clearly on the line.


Nuclear Future Does Not Require Science Fiction

This video, produced by Gordon McDowell of Thorium Remix in 2017 and featuring portions of Michael Shellenberger’s TEDx Talk “How Do Humans Save Nature?” , is about an energy revolution incentivized by optimal handling of industrial process, desalinated water, nuclear waste, valuable fission products and where energy production is no longer constrained by a perceived oversupply.


  1. BP, Statistical Review of World Energy June 2018
  2. Climate & Capitalism: Energy and Climate Change: No progress in 20 years: BP statistics show we are far from meeting the emission reduction targets adopted in the Paris Agreement. In 2017, we took a step backwards, by Gerardo Honty, June 26, 2018.
  3. Science, Net-zero emissions energy systems, by Steven J. Davis, Nathan S. Lewis, Matthew Shaner,  Sonia Aggarwal, Doug Arent, Inês L. Azevedo, Sally M. Benson, Thomas Bradley, Jack Brouwer, Yet-Ming Chiang, Christopher T. M. Clack, Armond Cohen, Stephen Doig, Jae Edmonds, Paul Fennell, Christopher B. Field, Bryan Hannegan, Bri-Mathias Hodge, Martin I. Hoffert, Eric Ingersoll, Paulina Jaramillo, Klaus S. Lackner, Katharine J. Mach, Michael Mastrandrea, Joan Ogden, Per F. Peterson, Daniel L. Sanchez, Daniel Sperling, Joseph Stagner, Jessika E. Trancik, Chi-Jen Yang, Ken Caldeira, June 29, 2018
  4. YouTube, Nuclear Future Does Not Require Science Fiction – TR2016c 5h26m08s07f, March 25, 2017 by Gordon McDowell