Access to electricity has transformed the world, helping countries to develop their economies, and lifting millions out of poverty. However, this success has come at a great cost: the energy sector, heavily reliant on fossil fuels, is responsible for some 40 per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions – one of the so-called greenhouse gases, which trap heat in the atmosphere and warm the Earth – and almost two-thirds of these emissions come from coal.
But, despite the United Nations calling urgently for an end to fossil fuels, hundreds of new coal-fired power stations are still being built, and hundreds more are in the pipeline. Is the world ready for a new era of clean, cheap and accessible energy for all?
Kick the coal habit, and put a price on carbon, urges UN chief
The UN chief has called for taxes to be placed on carbon emissions, an end to the trillions of dollars’ worth of estimated subsidies for fossil fuels, and for the construction of coal-fired power stations to be halted by 2020, if we are to stand a chance of ending the climate crisis.
Many countries, particularly developed economies, are starting to heed the UN’s message. However, Southeast Asia, one of the fastest-growing economic regions in the world, appears to be stuck on fossil fuels as the answer to its energy needs: In November, Mr. Guterres told a meeting of the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) group in Thailand that coal “remains a major threat in relation to climate change”, adding that countries in Southeast Asia are some of the most vulnerable to climate change.
Asian development still fueled by coal
According to studies by the International Energy Agency, the region is expected to become a key driver of world energy trends over the next 20 years. Millions of people in Southeast Asia have gained access to electricity since 2000, and the region is on the way to achieving universal access by 2030.
The UN-backed Sustainable Energy for All (SEforALL), has compiled data showing that the region has the third highest number of coal power plants in the pipeline after China and India. Indonesia, Viet Nam and the Philippines have the largest coal plant pipeline of all South East Asian countries, with Malaysia and Thailand not far behind.
The wealthier Asian countries are also bankrolling coal beyond their borders: State-owned financial agencies in China, Japan, and South Korea are now, respectively, the largest sources of funding for coal plants in other countries: research from SEforALL shows that China was the largest international source international source of finance for coal, committing more than $1.7 billion in 2015/2016.
Coal is losing power
Nevertheless, the world, as a whole, is slowly moving in the right direction, and the number of plants currently being planned is falling. The amount of permits of new coal plants has dropped to record lows, and over a thousand have been cancelled, a reflection of a tougher economic climate for coal plant developers, and the growing consensus for the need to limit global warming, and protect human health.
In November 2019, four years after the Paris Agreement, a key UN climate conference at which countries committed to step up efforts to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial temperatures and boost climate action financing, the UN Secretary-General convened a Climate Action Summit in New York, where many nations announced beefed-up measures to combat the climate crisis, including putting limits on the amount of electricity produced from coal-based sources.
The UK, for example, is expected to completely phase out coal in the next few years, Germany – one of the world’s biggest users of coal – has agreed to stop by 2038, and eight other European Union countries have announced that they will put an end to coal use by 2030. Chile has pledged to close all of its coal-fired power stations by 2040, and South Korea will close 10 plants by 2022.
A “Powering Past Coal Alliance”, made up of 32 countries, 25 regional, provincial and municipal level governments, and 34 business members, announced new members, including Germany and Slovakia, at the conference, committed to speeding up the transition from coal-based to clean energy, and to lead global efforts to curtail coal use.
Here comes the sun
In addition, more and more countries, and businesses, acknowledge that the use of renewable energy is not only the right thing to do for the planet, it also makes economic sense.
Technology already exists to enable the world to transition away from coal, and other fossil fuels; and also to connect the 840 million people who still don’t have access to electricity to clean, renewable energy sources. And it’s affordable.
SEforALL research shows that renewables are now the cheapest form of new electricity generation across two thirds of the world — cheaper than both new coal and new natural gas power – and, by 2030, wind and solar will undercut coal and gas almost everywhere.
Disconnect between words and actions
However, even with the decline in coal use, and growth in the use of renewables, the transition to clean energy is not taking place quickly enough, and there is still a big gap between countries’ climate commitments, and their planned production of fossil fuels, as demonstrated by the 2019 Production Gap report, the first of its kind, from the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and research partners.
The gap is largest when it comes to coal: countries are currently planning to produce 150% more coal in 2030, than would be consistent with limiting warming to 2°C, and almost three times more than would be consistent with limiting warming to 1.5°C.
“Despite more than two decades of climate policy making, fossil fuel production levels are higher than ever,” Måns Nilsson, head of the Stockholm Environment Institute, one of the organizations that produced the study, said in a press release. “This report shows that governments’ continued support for coal, oil and gas extraction is a big part of the problem. We’re in a deep hole, and we need to stop digging.”
In 2020, the UN launches a Decade of Action, to kickstart efforts to achieve the goals that make up the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. When it comes to energy, the goal is to ensure affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all: the challenge for the UN, and the world, is to rapidly speed up the move towards renewables, and kick the coal habit once and for all.
Guterres leads call to make Africa ‘renewable energy superpower’
The flame of injustice is “scorching hopes and possibilities” across Africa as the world grapples with the climate crisis, with the continent suffering some of the worst impacts of global warming said the UN chief on Tuesday.
Secretary-General António Guterres was addressing the African Climate Summit in Nairobi, Kenya, noting that despite “extreme heat, ferocious floods, and tens of thousands dead from devastating droughts”, the continent was responsible for less than four per cent of emissions.
“The blow inflicted on development is all around with growing hunger and displacement”, he said.
But amid the “climate chaos” he said it was still possible to avoid the worst, “but only with a quantum leap in climate action.”
He said far greater climate ambition was needed from all countries led by the largest emitters, in line with his Climate Solidarity Pact and Acceleration Agenda.
He called on the G20 advanced economies meeting in Delhi this week, to take responsibility and commit to reaching net zero emissions as close as possible to 2040.
Secondly, he called for “climate justice” to reach goals on renewable and affordable energy, particularly in Africa. This means operationalizing the agreed loss and damage fund, universal early warning systems, and a “course correction in the global financial system.”
‘World leader in renewable energy’
Third, Africa is rich in untapped renewable energy with the potential to become a world leader in renewables and “green growth.”
It has nearly a third of the world’s mineral reserves for solar power, electric vehicles and battery storage.
“To truly benefit all Africans, the production and trade of these critical minerals must be sustainable, transparent and just across every link of the supply chain”.
The UN chief pointed to the Greater Horn region where over 85 per cent of electricity comes from renewables. Mozambique gets nearly all its energy from green and sustainable resources.
And wind and solar projects are already helping power Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco and South Sudan.
He called for a collective effort to create “a true” African Renewable Energy Alliance.
“Renewable energy could be the African miracle but we must make it happen. We must all work together for Africa to become a renewable energy superpower.”
Mr. Guterres told the conference of African leaders and stakeholders hosted by Kenya and the African Union Commission that he was convinced the continent “can be at the heart of a renewable future.”
He said now was the time for all nations “to stand as one in defence of our only home. Let’s deliver the climate justice that Africans, the world, and the planet we share, demand and deserve.”
Speaking at a press conference in Nairobi after his speech, the Secretary-General said it was time to end the injustices that are holding the continent back. He pledged to work closely with African leaders and organizations such as the AU, to accelerate progress.
WP: Drop in energy needs points to a further deterioration in industrial activity in Europe
Europe has an even stronger ally to keep gas prices under check heading into the colder months: extremely weak demand. The manufacturing crisis that’s plaguing the continent — industrial activity in Germany has contracted for 14 consecutive months — is the best antidote against a gas supply squeeze. With friends like that, who needs enemies? – asks ‘The Washington Post’.
Europe is defeating its energy crisis thanks to the impact that said crisis has had on its industrial heartland. Across the continent, many energy-intensive companies have either closed or reduced production after not being able to cope with higher energy prices. The fertilizer, chemical, metallurgic, glass, paper and ceramic industries are particularly affected. All those shuttered factories don’t need gas or electricity now.
In Germany, activity among energy-intensive companies plunged in June by nearly 18% versus late 2020, according to official data. During the same month, industrial gas demand also declined 18% compared with a year ago. In July, gas demand posted an even deeper plunge, falling 22.9% from a year earlier, the largest decline so far in 2023. When official industrial production data is released for July in a few weeks, that drop in energy needs points to a further deterioration in industrial activity.
Due to anemic manufacturing activity and lower-than-expected gas-burn in the electricity sector, Morgan Stanley reckons that total gas demand in Europe is running about 15% below the five-year average, even when adjusted by the impact of the weather. With consumption low and LNG supply so far plentiful, Europe has been able to inject a record amount of gas into underground storage over the spring and summer — despite most countries in the region no longer having access to Russian pipeline gas supply.
European gas stocks are nearly 92% full — a record high for this time of the year. If the current injection pace continues, inventories would reach 100% by mid-September.
And yet, it would be of little solace for the continent’s industrialists. Currently, European gas prices are running at about €35 ($38) per megawatt hour, compared with the 2010-2020 average of just over €20. Wholesale electricity prices are running above €140 per megawatt hour, more than triple the 2010-2020 average of €38.5.
The real problem is that companies know that any supply issue, real or perceived, would trigger a price rally, because even with nearly full stockpiles, Europe needs all the gas it can grab to make it through the winter. The manufacturing sector remains the go-to segment of consumption to find extra demand destruction. Hence, why so many chief executive officers are reluctant to bring back production capacity, fearing reactivating a plant only to get caught again by higher prices.
As such, the price of avoiding the energy crisis is a deep recession in the manufacturing sector, and a long-term loss of economic growth.
German businesses are increasingly curbing investments and eyeing production abroad amid high energy prices at home, informs Bloomberg.
Over half of surveyed companies say the energy transition is having negative or very negative effects on their competitiveness, according to a report by the German Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Among manufacturers, almost a third are considering or already executing a production shift abroad — twice as much as during last year’s energy crisis.
“The German economy’s confidence in energy policy has fallen to a low point,” the group’s chairman Achim Dercks said. “Concerns about competitiveness have never been greater.”
Germany’s manufacturing-heavy economy has seen a protracted period of weakness that shows few signs of abating amid plunging business confidence, and it’s the only major European nation whose output is forecast to shrink this year. While manufacturers used to enjoy relatively cheap power costs when Germany was still receiving pipeline gas from Russia, last year’s crisis forced the country to revamp its plan for future supplies. Its energy prices are currently among the highest in Europe.
While the expansion of renewable energy sources is expected to eventually bring costs down, they are likely to remain elevated until at least 2027, according to the government. Among large industrial companies — who often already have links to production abroad — one in four have already started or completed further capacity movements.
EU imports record volumes of LNG from Russia
The EU is set to import record volumes of liquefied natural gas from Russia this year, despite aiming for the bloc to wean itself off Russian fossil fuels by 2027, Financial Times informs.
In the first seven months of this year, Belgium and Spain were the second and third-biggest buyers of Russian LNG behind China, according to analysis of industry data by Global Witness, a nongovernment organisation.
Overall, EU imports of the super-chilled gas were up 40 per cent between January and July this year compared with the same period in 2021.
The jump comes from a low base as the EU did not import significant amounts of LNG before the war in Ukraine due to its reliance on piped gas from Russia. But the rise is much sharper than the global average increase in imports of Russian LNG, which was 6 per cent over the same period, Global Witness said.
The NGO’s analysis is based on data from industry analytics company Kpler, which showed that the EU is importing about 1.7 per cent more Russian LNG than it did when imports hit a record high last year.
Global Witness said the cost of the LNG imported from January to July at spot market prices amounted to €5.29bn. “It’s shocking that countries in the EU have worked so hard to wean themselves off piped Russian fossil gas only to replace it with the shipped equivalent,” said Jonathan Noronha-Gant, senior fossil fuel campaigner at Global Witness.
Most of the Russian volumes come from the Yamal LNG joint venture, which is majority-owned by the Russian company Novatek.
As well as resulting in billions of euros in revenues going to Russia at a time when the EU continues to tighten its sanctions regime against Moscow, the import levels leave the EU exposed to any sudden decision by the Kremlin to cut supplies as it did for piped gas last year.
Alex Froley, senior LNG analyst at consultancy ICIS, said that “long-term buyers in Europe say they will keep taking contracted volumes unless it is banned by politicians”. He added that an EU ban on imports would cause some disruptions to shipping as global trade patterns would need to be rearranged, “but ultimately Europe could find other suppliers and Russia other buyers”.
Belgium imports large volumes of Russian LNG because its port of Zeebrugge is one of the few European points of transshipment for LNG from ice-class tankers used in the high north to regular cargo vessels.
Spain’s utility Naturgy and France’s Total also have continuing contracts for large quantities of Russian LNG, analysts said. EU policymakers have been urging European companies not to buy Russian LNG. Spanish energy minister Teresa Ribera, whose government is chairing the six-month rotating presidency of the EU, said in March that LNG should be hit with sanctions, adding that the situation was “absurd”.
Kadri Simson, the EU’s energy commissioner, has said that the bloc “can and should get rid of Russian gas completely as soon as possible, still keeping in mind our security of supply”.
EU officials have pointed to an overall effort to phase out Russian fossil fuels by 2027, but warned that an outright ban on LNG imports risked prompting an energy crisis akin to last year when EU gas prices hit record highs of more than €300 per megawatt hour.
One official said that despite European gas storage containers being more than 90 per cent full ahead of winter, there was still “a lot of nervousness” should there be any further cuts to supplies.
Russian LNG accounted for 21.6mn, or 16 per cent, of the EU’s total 133.5mn cubic metres of LNG imports (equivalent to 82bn cubic metres of natural gas) between January and July, Kpler data shows, making it the bloc’s second-biggest supplier of the liquid fuel after the US.
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