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The Gravitational Pull of Planet Carbon

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Posted on Feb 14, 2014

woodleywonderworks (CC BY 2.0)

By Michael T. Klare, TomDispatch

(Page 2)

This, no doubt, produced the requisite smiles from Dudley’s oil-friendly audience.  Then his comments took a darker turn.  Can we satisfy the world’s energy requirements with fuels that are sustainable, he asked.  “Not at the moment,” he admitted.  Because of a rising tide of fossil fuel consumption, he added, “carbon emissions are currently projected to rise—by 29% by 2035, we estimate in the Outlook.”  He acknowledged that, whatever good news might be found in that document, in this area “steps are needed to change the forecast.”

Next, Dudley tried to put a hopeful spin on the long-term climate prospect.  By replacing coal-fired power plants with less-carbon-polluting natural gas, he indicated, overall greenhouse gas emissions can be reduced.  Increasing the efficiency of energy-consuming devices, he added, will also help.  All of this, however, adds up to little when it comes to the big picture of carbon emissions.  In the end, he could point to few signs of progress in the struggle to slow the advance of climate change.  “In 2035, we project that gas and coal will account for 54% of global energy demand [and oil another 27%].  While renewables will grow rapidly, their share will reach just 7%.”

Most of the media coverage of Dudley’s appearance focused on his expectations of long-term energy abundance, not what it would do to us or our planet.  Several commentators were, however, quick to note how unusual it was for an oil company CEO to address the problem of carbon emissions at all, no less express something verging on despair over the prospect of making any progress in curbing them.

“[Dudley] concludes… [that] the world is still a long way from delivering the peak in greenhouse gas emissions many scientists advise has to be achieved within the next decade to minimize the risk of dangerous climate change,” observed energy analyst James Murray at businessGreen.com.

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Europe’s Retrenchment

The member states of the European Union (EU) have long exercised global leadership in the struggle to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and slow the pace of climate change.  Under their justly celebrated 20-20-20 plan, adopted in December 2008, they are committed to reducing their emissions by 20% over 1990 levels by 2020, increasing their overall energy efficiency by 20%, and achieving 20% reliance on renewables in total energy consumption.  No other region has embraced goals as ambitious as these, and none has invested greater resources in their implementation.  Any wavering from this path would signal a significant retrenchment in the global climate struggle.

It now appears that Europe is preparing to rein in the pace of its drive to slow global warming.  At issue is not the implementation of the 20-20-20 plan, which is well on its way to being achieved, but on the goals that should follow it.  Climate activists and green energy entrepreneurs have been calling for an even more ambitious set of targets for 2030 and beyond; many manufacturers and other major energy consumers have been pushing for a slower pace of change, claiming that increased reliance on renewables is driving up energy prices and so diminishing their economic competitiveness.  Already, it appears that the industrialists are gaining ground at the expense of climate action.

At stake is the EU’s climate blueprint for 2030, the next major threshold in its drive to slow the pace of warming. On January 22nd, the EU’s executive arm, the European Commission (EC), released its guidelines for the new plan, which must still be approved by the EU Parliament and its member states.  While touted by some as a sign of continued European commitment to decisive climate action, the EC’s plan is viewed as a distinct setback by many environmental leaders.

At first glance, the plan looks promising.  It calls for a 40% reduction in emissions by 2030—a huge drop from the 2020 requirement.  This is, however, less dramatic than it may appear, analysts say, because energy initiatives already under way in Europe under the 20-20-20 plan, coupled with a region-wide economic slowdown, will make a 40% reduction quite feasible without staggering effort.  Meanwhile, other aspects of the plan are downright worrisome.  There is no mandate for a further increase in energy efficiency and, far more important, the mandate for increased reliance on renewables—at 27%, a significant gain—is not binding on individual states but on the EU as a whole.  This makes both implementation and enforcement questionable matters.  Jens Tartler, a spokesperson for the German Renewable Energy Federation (which represents that country’s wind and solar industries), called the lack of binding national goals for renewables “totally disappointing,” claiming it would “contribute to a marked reduction in the pace of expansion of renewables.”

To explain this evident slackening in Europe’s climate commitment, analysts point to the immense pressures being brought by manufacturers and others who decry the region’s rising energy prices caused, in part, by increased subsidies for renewables.  “Behind the heated debate in Brussels about climate and renewable energy targets, what is really happening is that concern over high energy prices has taken precedence over climate concerns in Europe,” says Sonja van Renssen, the Brussels correspondent for Energy Post, an online journal.  “Many [EU] member states and industry fear that a strong climate and energy policy will be bad for their economies.”

In arguing their case, proponents of diluted climate goals note that EU policies have raised the cost of producing a metric ton of aluminum in Europe by 11% and that European steel companies pay twice as much for electricity and four times as much for natural gas as their U.S. counterparts.  These, and similar phenomena, are “dragging the EU economy down,” wrote Mark C. Lewis, former head of energy research at Deutsche Bank.


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