Listening to executives of the International Energy Agency discuss their World Energy Outlook 2011 report yesterday morning at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, even as the COP17 global climate negotiations begin in Durban, I found myself recalling Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady when she sang:
Words! Words! Words!
I'm so sick of words!
I get words all day through, first from him, now from you!
Is that all you blighters can do?
Why? Because the cold, hard data in the authoritative IEA report underscores the yawning gap between the words that we hear from the world's political and business leaders and what is actually happening on the ground (and in the air).
Here are a few examples:
Rhetoric: Virtually every world leader and CEO says anthropogenic climate change is a serious problem. Thousands have traveled in Durban to talk, interminably, about climate justice, climate finance, post-Kyoto, etc.
Reality: Energy-related carbon-dioxide (CO2) emissions in 2010 were the highest in history. They've grown, in large part, because roughly half of the growth in energy use during the last decade came from coal, as this chart shows. Most countries and most companies emit more greenhouse gases today than ever.
Rhetoric: Just about everyone -- business people, enviros, Democrats, Republicans -- supports energy efficiency. What's not to like?
Reality: The world is using energy less efficiently. This comes as a shock, at least to me, because technological improvements should be making cars, appliances, factories and homes more efficient. Energy efficiency is "on the top of the agenda of every government, but when you get the numbers there's a big décolletage there," says Fatih Birol, the chief economist of the IEA. (He's a Turk who lives in Paris, which may explain the reference to cleavage.) Emerging markets like China and Russia, where energy usage is growing fastest, are less efficient than the U.S. and E.U., it turns out.
Rhetoric: "Clean energy is the future." This is the kind of thing that's said all the time, particularly here in Washington. "The President has taken unprecedented action to build the foundation for a clean energy economy" says the White House website.
Reality: That's true, but insufficient. The IEA, after making a series of assumptions about global policy, forecasts that coal and natural gas will power more than half of the world's expanding need for electricity, between now and 2035, as this chart shows:
So does this dose of reality leave me depressed, or give me hope? A little of both, it turns out.
Next page: Three reasons to be hopeful