Energy realism and a green recovery
The concept of a “green recovery” is a compelling topic of discussion at the World Economic Forum this week in Dailan, China. It stems from the United Nations Environment Program calling for investment of 1% of global GDP (nearly $750 billion) to promote a sustainable economic recovery.
A “green recovery” speaks to two of the most important issues of our time –- the efficient use of energy and the realistic understanding of energy’s role in the global economy. It’s a role that can help lift millions of people out of poverty, while addressing a healthier environment.
We all aspire to a more environmentally sound approach to energy, but to address these aspirations we need to be realistic about energy. Call it “energy realism.”
“Energy realism” is a commitment to a long-term view of the role of all forms of energy in our lives, and the need to be realistic about the true scale and complexity of the energy challenges that confront the global community.
Every day, the world uses, from all energy sources, the equivalent of 245 million barrels of oil. Eighty-five percent of the global economy is powered by oil, natural gas and coal, despite the enormous progress we’ve made toward alternative energy sources.
Worldwide, we use 50 percent more energy than we did only 20 years ago. And 20 years from now, demand will have risen by another 30 percent or so.
Faced with this level of demand growth, energy realism requires that we develop all the energy we can, in every available form. No single source is the only answer. We need it all – oil and gas, nuclear and coal, solar and wind and biofuels.
Alternatives and renewables have strong promise, and over time, they’ll meet a far bigger share of global demand. But it’s unrealistic to suppose that they can replace conventional energy in the short term. Today’s global energy system is enormous and took more than a century to build. We must be realistic in how quickly technology and economics will permit a transition away from fossil fuels.
If one looks at the data, there is no avoiding one simple conclusion: the sheer scale of our energy needs is far beyond the capacity of any one source or technology. So we must balance energy aspirations with energy realism and agree that for the foreseeable future we need to develop it all.
We can do so with a shared goal of managing the transition to lower-carbon energy. But it will require a long-term commitment and, again, a grasp of the true size and scale of the undertaking.
For example, if we were to replace today’s global transportation system with a zero-carbon solution — all cars, trucks, buses, trains, planes and ships — we would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by only 15 percent. If we were to replace the entire global power generation system, we would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by only another 25 percent. So combined, that’s only a 40 percent reduction.
Yet there are serious and systematic ways of reducing carbon emissions for the long term. We need to set carbon reduction goals that are high – but goals that are also realistic. We need to willingly accept the associated costs that we all must bear. And we need to be realistic that an economy entirely free of fossil fuels may be beyond our reach.
But energy realism also holds the promise that we can make meaningful progress, and there are actions we can take today. The most immediate and cost-effective thing we can do is to maximize conservation through energy efficiency.
In the U.S., for example, we’ve made great strides in energy efficiency. In fact, we use half as much energy per unit of GDP as we did a generation ago.
For over a century, innovation, collaboration and partnerships have been the backbone of a global energy infrastructure that interconnects and powers the world. Our ongoing challenging is to find the common ground we need for that enhanced collaboration.
As we look to the future, we must continue to seek common ground on meeting the world’s long term energy needs while addressing environmental concerns – balancing the energy aspirations with energy realism, for the common good of all.