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At the end of this month, much of global attention will fall on Glasgow, Scotland. World leaders from close to 200 countries will convene there at the “COP26” international climate summit in a bid to lay down new commitments to curb greenhouse emissions and reckon with a warming planet. Scientists have made clear that a climate that sees temperatures rise 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels will be marked by increasingly extreme weather events, while rising sea levels, droughts and other phenomena displace whole communities.
According to a report this summer from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, humans can unleash only about 500 additional gigatons of carbon dioxide — the equivalent of about 10 years of current global emissions — to even have a chance of hitting that target. In other words, COP26 is happening not a moment too soon, as the urgency to transition away from carbon-intensive fossil fuels grows all the more acute. Alok Sharma, the designated British president of the summit, has said rich powers must use the moment to “consign coal to history.”
But, in the short term, other pressures may stall the momentum toward such action. Governments around the globe are facing a sharp rise in energy costs. Surging costs for natural gas and shortages of coal have led to significant spikes in the price of electricity — tripling from the previous year in some European countries. People may be more concerned about the prospect of cold winters and skyrocketing heating costs than they are with distant calculations that will guide climate action.
“The energy supply crisis is showing how difficult ending the dependence on fossil fuels would be,” Bloomberg News noted. China is increasing demand for coal to maintain power and lights. Europe, which remains reliant on gas supplies from Russia, is seeing its companies seeking more coal for electricity generation ahead of winter with gas prices at record highs and supply hard to come by.”
In China, authorities have mandated the rationing of the power supply throughout several of the country’s provinces. According to economic forecasters, the loss in industrial output could have a ripple effect on a global economy that is already struggling with supply chain problems. “China’s power shortages have global implications,” Ting Lu, chief China economist at global financial services group Nomura, told the Financial Times. “Global markets will feel the pinch of a shortage of supply from textiles, toys to machine parts … [and] very likely result in a shortage of goods for Thanksgiving and Christmas.”
The looming energy crisis in Asia, Europe and even possibly the United States is the product of a complicated set of factors, ranging from a dip in hydro- and wind-generated power to a spike in energy demands as industries whirred back into action after the pandemic-induced downturn. But skeptics of the broader climate agenda espoused by the convening powers at U.N.’s COP26 summit see the current moment as a warning to governments about the inherent risks of the current energy transition. In Europe, some countries have scrambled to counteract protests over rising prices, while natural gas suppliers in Russia, Qatar and elsewhere may gain all the more leverage as colder temperatures set in.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban — a constant critic of E.U. liberalism — blamed the rise in prices on the European Union’s green agenda. His dismay is not unique.
“We need to now recognize that decarbonization will only work when you’ve much more fully decarbonized,” Bim Afolami, a Conservative member of Britain’s parliament, told Bloomberg News. “This shows being in a transition phase — a half-in, half-out approach — leaves you vulnerable in this way.”
“The current European Commission has turned energy policy into a mere subset of climate policy, with little attention paid to supply security or energy affordability,” energy analyst Brenda Shaffer wrote in Foreign Policy. “While major new sources of natural gas have been found in proximity to Europe — in the Eastern Mediterranean, for example — European leaders have bowed to activist pressure and not seriously pursued any of these newly available sources.”
But climate action advocates see the current volatility as evidence for doubling down on the transition to renewable energies. “In long-term, we see the economy decoupling its dependence on fossilfuels,” Tom Sanzillo, of The Institute for Energy Economics Financial Analysis, told Today’s WorldView. He also said that business and policy leaders must confront the “managed fall” of fossil fuel industries.
The data shows that renewable energy in its various forms is getting inexorably cheaper to produce. The Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air has released a new report that shows electricity produced from low-carbon sources reduced the E.U.’s and Britain’s carbon emissions. The gas bill of the United States has dropped by several billions of dollars. Sanzillo stated that skyrocketing gas prices are an incentive for people to quit using fossil fuels.
Leading European politicians preparing for COP26 concur. They believe the shift to renewable energy will help European customers avoid the volatility of the oil and gas market. The wrong answer to this is to slow down transition to renewable energies,” Frans Timmermans from the E.U. ‘s climate chief, said at a meeting of environmental ministers this week. “The right response is to keep the momentum and perhaps even look for ways to increase the momentum.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken echoed that rhetoric. “We’re in the midst of a lengthy transition to renewables of various kinds, away from fossil fuels,” he said during an interview Wednesday. “During that transition you can have challenging, bumpy patches before you actually get to the point where you have all of these renewable energies that are online and able to fill the gap.”