oilfield
The investments in fossil energy are increasing in the world.

No more business as usual with respect to energy

Recently, the media reported that both investments in fossil energy and carbon dioxide emissions are increasing, though at a slower rate than before. How should we interpret this message? We had an email chat with Dr Jessica Jewell, an expert in energy transitions. Her research focuses on mechanisms of energy transitions, particularly fossil fuel phase-out and low-carbon electricity growth. This is what she responded:​
Portrait: Jessica JewellFirst, can you tell us a little about your research? 
"It's focused on political feasibility of energy transitions. I research national trends in energy use seeking to understand how individual countries respond to the global challenge of climate change given their specific national circumstances. More specifically, my research can be divided into two broad streams:

  • ​What drives and constrains the expansion of low-carbon technologies. I have done work on nuclear power and I am now also looking into renewable electricity investigating which countries introduce it earlier and where renewables can be expanded faster.
  • What drives and constrains the decline of carbon-intensive technologies. I am measuring the global and national rates of decline in carbon-intensive sectors and comparing them to what we need to mitigate climate change; I also research social factors and mechanisms that differentiate countries that phase out fossil fuels from those that expand them.

How to interpret these media reports about carbon dioxide emissions?
“The use of fossil fuels is still increasing because of the increasing demand for fossil fuels. Part of this trend is easier to understand: for example, demand for oil primarily depends on the growth of transportation and there are more and more vehicles in the world, particularly in the emerging economies such as China. The vast majority of cars and trucks sold today are still driven by oil, not to mention ships and airplanes which explains rising oil demand. 
What is more paradoxical is that in many parts of the world, emissions from the power sector are increasing. This is particularly interesting for social scientists, because we have technical solutions to produce low carbon electricity: hydropower, nuclear power, wind and solar power. Some of these technologies are already cheaper than coal or gas in some markets. However, some developing countries are making paradoxical energy choices of investing in new coal power instead of renewables”.

Is the emission curve broken?
“Global emissions are growing, but at a slower rate than before. If we look at the business-as-usual emission forecasts from a few decades ago and compare them with what we have now, we can clearly see that we’re doing much better than ‘business as usual’ as it was imagined in the 1990s and the early 2000s. 
The global emission curve reflects the combination of distinct trends: in some countries emissions are plateauing or slowly declining and in some countries they are still growing. 
In other words, there is a gradual evolution of the emission curve rather than radical breaking with the past”.
 
What is politically feasible in Europe, China and the United States?
“First of all, this depends on global technological developments and breakthroughs. Political feasibility in all three regions will be influenced by breakthroughs in different technologies such as small modular nuclear power reactors, carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), batteries and hydrogen technologies. Incremental developments such as falling the cost of solar PV panels and offshore wind power will also be important in a near future; Equally important to these global factors are national socio-political circumstances which shape political feasibility what can be done in a given context. I believe three such factors are particularly critical: 

  • How fast energy demand is growing; this mostly depends on population and economic growth in a given country and thus is difficult to change by policies. Energy demand in China is growing much faster than in the EU and the US which means that China needs much faster expansion of low-carbon energy to reduce emissions and as long as low-carbon energy grows slower than demand, emissions will keep growing
  • How fast low-carbon energy technologies can expand. For example, in recent research I and co-authors show that Europe and the United States introduced nuclear, solar and wind power earlier than China. We now need to understand what determines how fast low-carbon technologies expand. The market in China is more favorable (because it is growing), so perhaps renewables can be expanded even faster with right policies.
  • How fast we can phase-out carbon-intensive sectors. This may be even more challenging to do than expanding low-carbon energy. This is because growing a new sector brings jobs and profits and no one is in principle against it. However, phasing out an industry leads to job and economic losses, which is a political challenge. In a recent article I and co-authors explore this dilemma by looking at which countries pledge to phase out coal power. What we found out is that these countries extract and use little coal, have older power plant fleets, slow demand growth, higher incomes and exceptionally transparent governments which are able to deal with political challenges of coal phase out. There are many such countries in Europe and many of the US states have the same characteristics, so no wonder that coal use in Europe and North America is rapidly declining. In contrast, China has a very young coal power plant fleet (with an average age of only 12 years), produces most of its electricity from the domestically extracted coal, has rapidly expanding electricity demand, and less transparent government. So it is less feasible for China to phase out coal in the near term".
Is there anything more you want to say?
“I joined Chalmers about six months ago and I’m so happy I did. I have been struck by the wonderful combination of inspiring intellectual interactions and a supportive working environment. Chalmers offers great opportunities for young international scholars to build on and expand their networks and science”.

By: Ann-Christine Nordin
Photo: Oil field 
Haizhen Du/Shutterstock​

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Published: Wed 29 Jan 2020.