World Energy Revolution? Not Yet

No one needs Trotsky around these days to tell us that revolution, even energy revolutions, have to be international, or as we’d say today “global.” An Energiewende confined to a single nation-state alone, even an industrial giant like Germany, won’t add up to more than a pile of agricultural biomass.

Although a worldwide transition to a low carbon, resource-efficient green economy is far away, the new UN Environmental Program annual report is out, which gives us a bird’s eye view of the global picture. The bright side is that in 2011 investment in renewable energies hit an all-time high: 205 billion euros (257 billion dollars) for solar technologies, wind power, and biofuels. For the first time ever, more money was doled out for renewables than for new fossil fuel plants. Horrah, indeed!

If you count hydro, including big, environmentally nasty dam projects, then China is Number One. Without hydro, Germany leads the global pack. Taken as a whole, EU Europe is way out in front of everyone else, accounting for nearly half of all investment in renewables. Well over half of the total went to solar, which jumped 52 percent to 147 billion dollars, thanks to the boom in rooftop installations in Germany and Italy, but also because of the spread of small-scale PV in China and the United Kingdom, and large solar thermal (CSP) projects in Spain and the United States.

What exactly all this money flowing to renewables signifies is another question: Does it really reveal a world waking up to reality? The report’s authors think just maybe: “Policies helped to drive renewable energy forward,” said Mohamed El-Ashry, chairman of REN21, which co-produced the report with UNEP. “Policy development and implementation were stimulated by the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe in Japan, along with improvements in renewable energy costs and technologies.”

But the flip side is less rosy: Fossil fuels still cover 80 percent of the world’s energy consumption. Renewables like solar, wind, and biogas constitute about 8 percent; traditional biomass like wood is roughly 9 percent; and nuclear covers 3 percent. Moreover, 2011 investments were just 17 percent more than 2010 while from 2009 to 2010 investment soared by 34 percent. So much for the Fukushima factor…

Moreover, the IEA estimates that at this pace — and calculating in demographic growth — by 2035 three-quarters of our energy needs will still be meet with natural gas, oil, and coal.

This underscores the difference between what Germany is doing and the likes of China: Germany has committed itself to going fully renewable after 2050, maybe even by 2050, depending on who holds office. Others, like China, are adding renewables to an energy arsenal that still counts on fossil fuels and nuclear, and will for a long, long time.

It can’t work this way. It’s got to be one or the other, or a low carbon future is sheer fantasy.

Paul Hockenos’s own blog, Going Renewable, can be read on the website of the German Council on Foreign Relations

Image: Green planet via Shutterstock

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Paul Hockenos is a Berlin-based author who has written about Europe since 1989. Paul is the author of three major books on European politics: Free to Hate: The Rise of the Right in Post-Communist Eastern Europe, Homeland Calling: Exile Patriotism and the Balkans Wars, and Joschka Fischer and the Making of the Berlin Republic: An Alternative History of Postwar Germany. From 1997-99 he worked with the international mission in Bosnia and 2003-04 in Kosovo. Since then, Paul has held fellowships with the American Academy in Berlin, the European Journalism College in Berlin, and the German Marshall Fund. He was an editor at Internationale Politik, Germany’s leading foreign affairs journal, for five years. He is currently author of the blog Going Renewable and is writing a book about Germany’s energy revolution.

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