Energy on the Edge: Understanding the Challenge

Energy on the Edge

Along with the OPEC meeting that takes place late this week, the biggest story in the world of energy is the Paris Climate Change Conference (Conference of Parties 21, or COP21) that runs through the end of next week. This conference is put on by the United Nations with the goal of producing a global agreement that will lead to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Implementation of strategies that will help mitigate potential impacts of climate change are also on the agenda.

Decarbonizing our energy systems by encouraging greater usage of alternative energy — a frequent topic of this column — is one of the common themes in the fight against rising greenhouse gas emissions. Next weekend a new episode of National Geographic Channel’s Breakthrough series covers progress being made on this front. “Breakthrough: Energy on the Edge” debuts Sunday, December 6, at 9 pm ET on National Geographic Channel and covers some of the latest advances in alternative energy.

Ahead of the premiere, National Geographic Channel contacted me and extended an invitation to join the conversation by answering the question “Do you think that by tapping into the new alternative energy sources we can reverse most of the damage we have done to our environment?” But first I think we need to step back and make sure we understand the problem. Failure to correctly characterize a problem makes it much more difficult to address that problem. So let me first offer some context on the question.

Emissions on the March

Even if you are a climate change skeptic, there is no question that atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have been climbing steadily since shortly after the Industrial Revolution began and coal consumption started rising. Once the petroleum age started in the mid-1800’s, emission levels began to grow at exponential rates. This has resulted in an increase in the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide from about 280 parts per million (PPM) before the Industrial Revolution to the current level of about 400 PPM. Further, emissions continue to grow unabated. This should concern even the climate change skeptics.

Why has this happened? Primarily because fossil fuels were historically the cheapest and most convenient energy options. As countries attain higher standards of living, that has generally gone hand-in-hand with increasing consumption of fossil fuels. But scientists have recognized for decades that this isn’t a free lunch. Fossil fuels have made life more convenient, but they have also resulted in environmental damage.

Attempts to phase out fossil fuels with binding agreements — a major goal of this week’s Paris conference — often pit developing countries against developed countries. Thus, despite many years of attempts to negotiate agreements, as well as high profile campaigns to restrict carbon emissions, the reality is that today carbon dioxide emissions have never been greater:

Global CO2

In 1997 the Kyoto Protocol established legally binding obligations for developed countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Following the Kyoto agreement, emissions in OECD countries — effectively the world’s developed countries — continued to rise for a decade. But higher energy prices helped slow that advance, and emissions in developed countries began to decline in 2007 and are now 8% below the 2007 peak.

But one of the major challenges is that over the past decade carbon dioxide emissions in non-OECD countries — the world’s developing countries — have been rising sharply. Since the year 2000, carbon dioxide emissions in non-OECD countries are up 92% and are now well above the emissions of developed countries. In fact, emissions in developing countries have grown far too rapidly to offset the modest declines in developed countries:

Global CO2 OECD

In order to halt the growth in global emissions, the emissions from developing countries must be reined in. But developing countries argue that developed countries built their economies on a foundation of cheap fossil fuels, so why shouldn’t they be allowed to do the same? Further, the legacy emissions — that is the vast majority of the current carbon dioxide inventory in the atmosphere — belong to the developed countries. Thus, developing countries argue that they shouldn’t be punished for this. As if to illustrate this point, India has already announced that they oppose any deal that would have them phase out fossil fuels by the year 2100. They see coal as their cheapest path to development, and are therefore resistant of making pledges.

This brings us back to the original question of whether alternative energy can reverse the damage that has been done. If we consider that question to mean “Can alternative energy reverse the rising tide of carbon emissions?” — then we can at least put some parameters around an answer.

It is clear given the growth trajectory in the previous graphic that developing countries (like China and India) will be driving emissions for many years to come. To reverse the direction of emissions without crippling development in the developing countries (a non-starter for these countries as India emphasized), we will have to develop solutions that are not only technically viable, but that are cost-competitive with fossil fuels. Further, alternatives must be cumulatively capable of scaling up to displace large amounts of fossil fuels, and they must be convenient if consumers are going to willingly opt for alternatives over fossil fuels.

Is it a tall order? Absolutely. Too often we focus on the technical viability of solutions without proper consideration for economics or scalability. We have had alternatives to fossil fuels for hundreds of years in some cases. We have to recognize that technical viability is only one component of the equation. When economic viability isn’t there, fossil fuels will continue to be used despite alternatives.


Alternative energy is one of my greatest interests, so I am looking forward to National Geographic Channel’s “Breakthrough: Energy on the Edge” next Sunday. In previewing some of the video clips, it seems they do discuss both the technical and economic aspects of the problem. All too often we are inundated with press releases touting various breakthroughs in alternative energy. But these breakthroughs will not be capable of addressing the problem if they aren’t cost effective. Hopefully that piece of the puzzle is also adequately and realistically represented.

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