The end of 2015 marked a turning point in the fight to stop climate change, or at least it made us believe in a brighter future. Influential politicians from 195 countries around the world gathered together for the 21st annual summit (CPO21) that in 2015 took part in the French capital. The twelve-day conference ended up with a binding agreement whose main aim was to keep global temperature increase to 1.5° above pre-industrial levels.
The following year, the COP22 hosted in Marrakech failed to translate the Paris Agreement into action. Shadowed by Donald Trump’s victory and the looming risk for the U.S. to take a step back in the international climate regime, the annual summit produced a collection of documents that set out the details of the goals previously defined in Paris.
Last year, the COP23 wasn't more encouraging than the previous summit, and it left many issues unsolved, especially those related to finance whose decisions are postponed to the next COP24 at the end of 2018. Debates and agreements on climate change seem to evolve very slowly, with encouraging summits and disappointing ones to interchange with one another. Over the years, improvements on this topic have moved at slow pace showing that there is a long way to go before we put theory into practice. How long before we reach tangible outcomes?
When we discuss about climate change we are actually discussing about energy. Vaclav Smil, a Czech-Canadian scientist, has expressed some interesting considerations on this topic that are worth mentioning. The international community urges for a transition to clean energy that are inexhaustible and non-polluting. According to Smil, the demand for alternative sources is justified by the need to be prepared when the most widely used sources will eventually expire. This is a misconception. As he points out, we will never run out of any source because we will give up using it long before it will disappear from the earth due to economic reasons. The problem lies in the availability of abundant energy quantities at convenient costs.
If we can argue about the proper use of the word “inexhaustible”, we certainly can’t deny the urgent need to decrease harmful emissions. Here again, Smil highlights another widespread misconception: our society is not as “green” as we think it is. What are the environmental impacts of steel production? It’s one of the most energy-consuming and CO2 emitting activity. Today treatment processes are under development to minimise the environmental impact in the air while people are encouraged to recycle it multiple times, but there is still a long way to go before the use of steel will be completely “green”.
The truth, as Smil points out, is that transitions from one energy source to another are slow and can take many decades. Looking back, the use of carbon globally overcome wood around 1905, but if we analyse this transition state by state we can see that in the US this shift happened around 1880, while in Russia we have to wait until the 1930s and in China 1960s. From wood to carbon and from carbon to oil.
Since the middle of the last century, oil has become the most widely consumed resource and it continues to be – together with other fossil fuels - due to the limited performances of some alternative energy sources. Intermittency, in particular, is one of the major constraints to overcome. Wind turbines, as an example, don’t work when there is no wind and they can’t work when there is too much wind. Relying on wind energy requires huge storage reserves while improving interconnections in order to ease distribution. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t any alternative solutions. There are and there will be more, but we must distinguish between achievable goals and today unattainable results.
Energy is of paramount importance in human life and restrictive measures on energy use is not a solution. Progress and development must look forward and find out new ways to make it possible what today is still unattainable. Harmful energy sources will be replaced by alternative ones the day the latter will guarantee equal or better performances than the first ones, making “green” energy more attractive.