The global energy crisis has brought the climate to a crossroads

So much for the fight against the climate crisis – the energy crisis has priority. And it couldn’t have come at a more crucial time.

In just three weeks, heads of state and government and negotiators will meet for the COP26 international climate talks in Glasgow, Scotland. The momentum built to set an end date for coal and accelerate the global transition from climate-changing fossil fuels to renewable energies before the crisis hit.

But a rush to fossil fuels worries some experts that this moment could slow that transition, especially with the exit from coal, which is now closer than ever in history.

“The concern about China’s power shortage is that it seems to bolster the pro-coal argument there that the transition to renewables is happening too quickly,” said Christine Shearer, Global Energy Monitor’s coal program director, who monitors coal use fossil fuels worldwide.

With winter fast approaching and the global economy recovering from the Covid-19 pandemic faster than the world was preparing, governments are being forced to resort to readily available energy sources. The existing infrastructure for using renewable energies such as wind and sun is simply not enough to meet demand.

“Many decision-makers panic to a certain extent in view of the social reaction,” said Lisa Fischer, program manager at the European climate think tank E3G.

Throwing more money on fossil fuels is not a solution, she said, and some short-term solutions run counter to longer-term sustainable goals.

A better response would be “turbo-charge” funding for the deployment of renewable energy and energy efficiency programs, including rolling out infrastructure projects that have been hampered by the pandemic.

And this brings with it the dichotomy of the crisis – the world can either “recharge” renewable energy efforts or slow them down and rely more on fossil fuels, as is happening now.

A geopolitical mess

There are several reasons for the energy crisis beyond recovering from the pandemic. Electricity from renewable energies fell short of expectations – in Great Britain and continental Europe the summer was less windy than usual, so that the wind energy was not supplied sufficiently. In China, lower rainfall meant less energy from the country’s hydropower plants.

In addition, Russia is accused of slowing gas deliveries to Europe in order to encourage a faster approval process for its Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which runs under the Baltic Sea to Germany. Gazprom denied CNN allegations last month, but Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Novak said Thursday that gas prices would fall if Berlin certifies the project.

Chinese authorities have kept piles of coal imported from Australia in docks for months and refused to show Australia ready to take on its exports as the two countries remain cold on Canberra’s calls for an investigation into the origins of Covid-19. That only exacerbated the electricity shortage in the country.

Chinese officials last month urged companies in the country’s industrial heartland to limit energy consumption in order to reduce demand for electricity, state media reported. Home power outages occurred in some provinces when supplies were cut. But as the crisis deepens and global demand for Chinese goods increases, Beijing is changing course and urging coal miners to add a whopping 100 million tons to production, state media reported Thursday.

China has already propelled its economic returns with dozens of new coal-fired power plants, but the recent spike in production is a problem for COP26 – China was only just beginning to show signs that it was ready to play a role in setting an end date for the fossil fuel.

Chinese President Xi Jinping announced just two weeks ago that his country would stop funding coal projects abroad, removing the world’s largest donor of fossil fuels internationally. However, it has now come under pressure to do more coal mining at home.
China has announced that it will maximize its emissions sometime before 2030 and be carbon neutral by 2060. But the rapid construction of coal-fired power plants and increased production make this goal even more difficult to imagine.

A split in Europe

China is not alone. In the face of this crisis, European leaders are signaling that it is difficult to do without fossil fuels.

Last month the UK put an old coal-fired power station into operation to meet electricity needs. And some countries in the European Union are considering keeping coal and oil power plants open beyond their closing dates to avoid similar blackouts.

It is a blow to the sizeable gains Europe saw last year when renewables first generated more electricity than fossil fuels. In 2020, 38% of electricity was generated from renewables, compared to 37% from fossil fuels.

It has also led to a split in the EU Parliament, where the climate crossroads are clear. Faced with an urgent crisis, some leaders say the EU’s Green Deal will lose support without an effective short-term action plan to tackle rising consumer energy bills.

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The Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán leads this camp and accuses “bureaucrats in Brussels” of constantly increasing the price of energy from fossil fuels.

Meanwhile, Kadri Simson, EU Commissioner for Energy, said the Green Deal will provide “the only lasting solution to Europe’s energy challenge” and that more renewable energy and improved energy efficiency are the answer.

“We have to explain that the current price hike has little to do with our climate policy and a lot to do with our dependence on imported fossil fuels and relative prices,” said Simson on Wednesday.

“Wind and solar have continued to generate the cheapest electricity in Europe in recent months. They are not exposed to price volatility.”

A domino effect in the USA

A crisis is brewing in the US over soaring gasoline prices, a problem related to the broader energy problem. Some countries struggling to get enough natural gas are turning to oil to fill the electricity supply gap.

In August, Biden petitioned OPEC + – a bloc of large oil-producing nations and their allies – to increase global oil production after the rise in gasoline prices, as an increase in supply would dampen prices at the pump.

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It didn’t work – OPEC + said Monday it would only bring the offering to market in stages. Either way, Biden’s calls for more oil run counter to his climate agenda, which includes boosting the country’s electric vehicle market.
In order to reach net zero by 2050 – if the amount of greenhouse gases emitted is no greater than that removed from the atmosphere – the world must stop expanding fossil fuel production, according to the International Energy Agency.
However, some experts hope that executives at COP26 will choose the more difficult, but more rewarding route. While Britain is moving back to coal in the short term, its Department of Business for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy announced plans on Thursday to fully decarbonize its power sector 15 years ahead of schedule.

“The backdrop to the climate conference shows the extreme effects of fossil fuel dependency – in my opinion that could be enough to push some countries to the fence to really double their renewables,” said Charles Moore. Director of the European Program at the Ember Climate think tank.

“I think the UK is a great example. The UK has just committed to fully decarbonising the electricity system by 2035, ”he said.

“This is from the host of the climate conference.”

CNN’s Angela Dewan contributed to this report.

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