Someone just asked me if the energy produced by the human population of Florida would be enough to move the path of Hurricane Dorian, which very fortuitously made an northward turn right before it was about to make landfall.
As a species, we make a lot of heat — both with our bodies and with our activities — and there are a lot of people on the Atlantic coast. But enough to make a difference? My intuition says no, yet no one has done the maths to my knowledge, so let’s do it, just for fun. We’ll take one issue at a time, and then, at the end, compare all the numbers against the energy production of the sun and the effects of global warming.
Where does Canada get its electricity from? Though it is a desperately oil dependent country, its sources of electricity are fairly green. The bulk of electricity is produced by hydro-electric dams, followed by nuclear energy. Nuclear isn’t totally green — and there are other criticisms against it — but it is a low-carbon source. The share of coal in the energy mix has declined considerably in the last ten years as Ontario has retired all its coal generators, despite rising energy needs. The increase in electricity demand has been satisfied mostly by the growth of ‘new’ reneawables — biomass combustion and wind turbines, with solar playing only a modest role. Yet there is not license here for Canada to rest on its laurels — to reach its 2030 emission reduction goals, fossil fuels must be retired entirely from the electricity sector.
Overview of the energy sources of electricity production in four important regions: Africa, China, Europe and the United States. A few observations jump out. First, it shows that fossil fuels are still a big part of the energy mix. Yet all regions are making progress, Europe most of all, with about 60% of being low-carbon (including nuclear. Second, the place of coal (the dirtiest of fuels) in the energy mix has either plateaued or declined in all regions, with a strong reduction in the US. Third, Europe and the US, with mature economies, show little growth, while Africa and China’s electricity generation has grown rapidly. In China, that means that recent growth has been covered almost entirely by low-carbon sources. The fourth and final observation is that Africa lags far behind in electrification, owing to its generally lagging development. The silver lining is that wind and solar are distributed energy sources that can be installed without massive and expensive grids, allowing Africa to leap-frog 19th and 20th century technology.
The beginning of a new year is a good time to take stock of the on-going energy revolution. The world is turning away from the polluting and smelly fossil energy sources of yesteryear towards clean, renewable, sun-based energy (because the wind is also powered by the sun). The graphs attached to this post show the amount of generating capacity the world has for wind power and utility-scale solar photovoltaic power. That is, how much power could solar and wind generators crack out at any given time? The numbers presented here are from 2017, the last year with available data. Combined, solar and wind power capacity grew by almost 50% in 2017, ending in 399.7 gigawatts (GW) of installed solar capacity andf 514.8 GW of wind capacity.
Here’s all the energy the world used in 2017, the last year with available data, broken down by fuel or energy type. It shows all the energy consumed for all purposes and in all forms. The data is converted to millions of tonnes of oil equivalent — the amount of oil we would have consumed if it was our only source of energy. All combined, human activities consumed the equivalent of 13,511 million tonnes of oil in 2017.
The Government of Ontario recently scrapped the provincial cap-and-trade initiative in favour of a new regulatory, command-and-control approach. Before presenting a new bill, the government is obligated to seek input. This is my contribution. It is far from a complete climate plan, but an attempt to speak the language of the business friendly government. It is a major problem that for 30 years, the environmental movement has failed to communicate the issue in a way that spurs significant action. Instead, we have allowed people and businesses with a vested interest in the status quo to poison the debate with a pernicious lie: that climate is too expensive; a job killer we can’t afford. No more. We urgently need to turn the debate around: climate action is not only imperative, it is a crucial opportunity to create a modern, efficient economy that works for everyone, not just a few.
Who is responsible for global warming? Is it poor countries with large populations? Is it countries with small populations but high emissions? Is it countries with a historically high share of total emissions? The position of the developing countries since the very beginning of the international climate negotiations (in 1991) has been that we must look at who is historically responsible. They point out that the industrialized countries have produced the lion’s share of the emissions since the Industrial Revolution. Since 1850, 60% of the total, cumulative CO2 emissions (from fossil fuel and cement) have been emitted by just four political entities: the United States, the European Union, Russia and Japan.
There are two powerful stories in this chart. One is about growth. The other is about inequality. In the global emissions arms race of the last few decades, billions of people have been lifted out of poverty, thanks in large part to fossil fuels. The result has been a runaway increase in CO2 emissions; the main cause of global warming, and as a consequence, climate change. But many have been left out — and if they want to follow the same path to prosperity as the rest, it’s game over for the climate.
There is more than one way to count your carbon. One way is to consider the relative CO2 emissions of countries — that is, their emissions divided by their population. This graph isn’t a representation of all the top emitters, but a cross-section pulling out some of the more important countries from top to bottom. It shows striking differences in carbon dependence.