The recent announcement by China that it will bring to the Paris summit this December a commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 60 % by 2050 is a sign of how sentiment is finally shifting even at the highest levels, though of course it does have to be actually delivered. But this is not an isolated straw in the wind. In 2013, for the first time, more new renewable capacity was built than fossil fuel-burning capacity, and future projections show that this excess wind and solar capacity over oil, gas and coal will steadily grow. Indeed, according to the International Energy Agency estimates based on current trends, renewables could supply half of the world’s electricity needs by 2050, with solar energy alone representing more than a quarter of that amount.
There are further promising signs too. Although some huge centralised solar plants have been built, the biggest increase has been in distributed power – solar systems fixed to the roofs of buildings and homes – which now accounts for about 60% of total global solar capacity. In addition progress has been made in remedying what is always regarded as the greatest weakness of renewables, namely their failure to work when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing. The California company Tesla has achieved a breakthrough in storage technology by constructing giant batteries capable of capturing surplus energy and feeding it into the grid to fill these gaps in supply. Further developments in smart grid technology will also better synchronise diffuse distributed systems. And continuing improvements in fuel efficiency standards and electric motor technology will further curtail energy use and emissions from the world’s 1.2bn vehicles.
Of course there are setbacks and all these efforts are a race against time. At Lima in December last year the UN negotiators stated that the 2 degrees C target would now inevitably be exceeded, and with global emissions rising inexorably over the last 50 years we were now headed towards a temperature increase by the end of this century of 2.2-5.5 degrees C. And the responsibility for this lies heavily withe the West: the top 20 energy-consuming countries account for some 80% of the world’s energy use – more than 4 times the amount of energy consumed by the other 174 countries combined.
Yet Osborne, with his unfailing knack of adopting the wrong policy (such as using austerity rather than growth to cut the budget deficit) has opted for what he likes to call a ‘shale revolution’, focused largely on hydraulic fracturing to tap 1.3 tn cubic feet of natural gas in large swathes of north-west England around the Bowland beauty spot. There has never been a proper assessment of the risks in the UK based on actual US experience. In particular, no attention has been given to the fact that a dozen trains loaded with volatile crude oil from the Bakken shale have gone off the rails, creating towering explosions, including the most notorious bomb-train incident in 2013 which killed 42 people and vaporised a large section of the nearby town.