Reliance on fossil fuels remains virtually unchanged despite trillions for ‘clean energy’

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Appeared in the Edmonton Journal, January 3, 2024
Reliance on fossil fuels remains virtually unchanged despite trillions for ‘clean energy’

At COP28, the recent United Nations climate change conference in the United Arab Emirates, bureaucrats, politicians and activists from nearly 200 countries gathered to push for a "transition away from fossil fuels" and continue and indeed expedite efforts to achieve a global net-zero “carbon footprint” by 2050. However, despite significant spending on clean energy, the world’s dependence on fossil fuels remains largely unaffected, calling into question how realistic the commitment to zero emissions by 2050 is in the real world.

The UN staged the first “COP” conference in Berlin in 1995, marking the beginning of a collaborative international effort of energy transition and decarbonization. According to one report, global investment in renewable energy totalled US$7 billion in 1995.

Today, according to the latest data from the International Energy Agency (IEA), investment in “clean energy” by both governments and private industry reached more than US$1.7 trillion in 2023. That’s roughly the equivalent of the entire Australian economy this year. This spending includes more than just renewable power (wind, solar, etc.), which totalled $659 billion in 2023, but also electric vehicles, battery storage, nuclear, carbon capture and more.

More broadly, according to the IEA numbers, from 2015 to 2023, governments and industry worldwide have spent $11.7 trillion (inflation-adjusted) on clean energy. For context, this is basically the equivalent of all the goods and services produced in Germany, Japan and the United Kingdom combined in 2023. Simply put, an extraordinary amount of money and resources have been allocated to the transition away from fossil fuels for the better part of three decades.

So, what’s the return on this investment?

According to data from the Statistical Review of World Energy, from 1995 to 2022, the amount of fossil fuels (oil, gas and coal) consumed worldwide actually increased by 58.6 per cent. Specifically, oil consumption increased by 34.2 per cent, natural gas by 86.7 per cent and coal by 72.7 per cent.

There was, however, a small decline in the share of total energy provided by oil, gas and coal during that time period, falling from 85.6 per cent of total energy use in 1995 to 81.8 per cent in 2022. In other words, after tens of trillions of dollars spent on the transition away from fossil fuels, consumption declined by 3.8 percentage points as a share of total global energy.

Meanwhile, renewables increased from 0.6 per cent of total energy to 7.5 per cent over the same period but both nuclear and hydro declined (6.5 per cent to 4.0 per cent and 7.3 per cent to 6.7 per cent, respectively). In other words, the 3.8-percentage point decline in fossil fuels as a share of total energy in 2022 was offset by a net increase in clean energy of the same amount.

In addition to the massive amounts of spending, much of it paid for by taxpayers, this transition has come with other costs. Renewable sources such as wind and solar are not always available and therefore require back-up energy systems. Lack of investment in back-up systems and required infrastructure has resulted in marked price increases in energy and/or blackouts in parts of Europe and the United States.

At COP28, conference attendees including Canada’s Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault pledged to reach net-zero emissions—that our economy will emit no greenhouse gas emissions or offset its emissions—in 26 years. But given the trillions spent, the limited progress in reducing global reliance on fossil fuels, and the price increases and reduced energy reliability in countries that have meaningfully transitioned, that goal seems unrealistic in the real world.

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