By Katherine Tweed
By 2050, there’s going to be a whole lot more people who will be living in cities and shopping for cars. A recent report by HSBC, “Energy in 2050: Will fuel constraints thwart our growth projections?” outlines the overwhelming energy needs of the global market if nothing changes in coming decades, and then what has to happen to lessen the pain of the transition to a new energy economy.
The first 30 or so pages of the report elicit a heavy sigh. The authors, led by HSBC lead climate analyst Nick Robins, note that we live in a constrained energy world, where demand is growing as traditional fossil fuels are limited, either due to the price of extraction, or, just as importantly, due to political issues and carbon concerns. Essentially, it points out the obvious. A billion cars coming on the roads. A potential doubling of energy consumption. With the turmoil in the Middle East and the recent tragedy in Japan, newspaper headlines offer far more vivid examples of the energy-constrained and tumultuous world than a report can ever outline.
While the basis of the study is well-worn territory, the authors do eventually move into solutions, which are centered on government action (with a side order of energy efficiency).
The authors’ conclusions are not earth shattering, but rather a call to arms on the legislative front. “ What we can say is that leaving the change to market forces could be extremely disruptive,” they wrote, “making the transition to our 2050 world very bumpy.”
Some of the suggestions include:
- End (or lessen) subsidies for fossil fuels. The emerging world spent $321 billion on coal, oil, gas and electricity subsidies in 2009, according to IEA figures. In the U.S, $2.7 billion goes to oil subsidies annually. Despite agreements by the G-20 in 2009 to phase out inefficient fossil fuels subsidies, the authors note that no action has been taken.
- Carbon pricing. “Of course nobody likes to pay for something that has historically been free,” the authors write. So true. However, they point to carbon trading gaining ground in India and South Africa despite the fact that carbon pricing is essentially dead in the U.S. federal landscape.
- Efficiency regulation. From clean energy portfolio standards to higher fuel efficiency and stricter building standards, regulation is needed to slash energy use. However, the study didn't address regulations that would affect already existing buildings and transportation.
The report is Pollyannaish in its suggestions, because, realistically, these changes to government policy have been kicked around for the past few years, and in some cases decades, with little to no movement.
Carbon pricing is just not happening in today’s political climate, at least not in the U.S. No one is ending subsidies for fossil fuels, despite the benefits. While cities like San Francisco are including energy information in the point of sale of buildings, the rest of the nation is far from monetizing energy usage in such a way. It also calls transportation "low hanging fruit," but it will be many years before electric vehicles make up a notable portion of cars on the road, and the political fights over high-speed railraise questions about just how low this fruit is hanging.
Despite disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, continuing tragedy in Japan and upheaval in the Middle East, there is still limited political will to truly move to a clean energy economy. Even the Department of Energy’s research arm, ARPA-E could be facing budget constraints, despite the fact it's funding just the sort of technology that could provide energy security down the road.
HSBC points to Denmark as a model of moving to a more balanced, efficient energy economy. It is a wonderful example, and one that Toronto is trying to model. The problem, as pointed out by Toronto Hydro’s CEO Anthony Haines, is that Danish residents pay approximately $0.37 per kWh. The U.S. average is more like $0.11, and Toronto currently comes in at $0.07. Good luck making that argument during an election year.
What HSBC didn’t discuss was security -- energy security, national security, and economic security -- and how all of those issues cross party lines and could be the rhetoric that will push for legislative changes. This reporter thinks that the rhetoric of security is not loud enough to spur actions (operative word: action) that support domestic, clean energy. Currently ARPA-E is partnering with the Department of Defense to fund some projects, such as grid-level storage and new fuels. The intelligent folks at ARPA-E know that when it becomes an issue of security, the dollars continue to flow.
“The repeated shocks of economic turbulence from an unsustainable energy system may be the only way to push policy in the right direction,” the authors wrote. Oh, really? Because despite decades of economic turbulence from the current energy system, little has changed. What would have been more welcome in this report, rather than mastering the obvious, would have been suggestions of what will actually move the conversation forward when it comes to energy -- because so far the “massive collective government foresight” that HSBC analysts are calling for is still a dream.