Sultan shocks climate community with reality-based question

By Madeline Weld, Ph.D. | 12 December 2023
Population Institute Canada

COP28 president, Sultan Al Jaber. (Credit: YouTube / screengrab)

Did the emperor just point out that the science has no clothes?

One week before the start of COP28, the latest UN climate conference that ran from November 28 to December 12, Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber of Dubai, who would host the conference, shocked the climate world when he said that there was no science behind the fossil fuel phaseout by 2050 that the UN is promoting.

The Sultan made his assertion at a She Changes Climate event, in response to Mary Robinson, the chair of the Elders group and a former special envoy for climate change, during a live online event on November 21st. Robinson asserted that “We’re in an absolute crisis that is hurting women and children more than anyone…and it’s because we have not yet committed to phasing out fossil fuel. This is the one decision that COP28 can take and in many ways, because you’re head of Adnoc, you could actually take it with more credibility.”

Adnoc is the United Arab Emirates state oil company.

But the Sultan didn’t bite. “I accepted to come to the meeting to have a sober and mature conversation,” he replied. “I’m not in any way signing up to any discussion that is alarmist. There is no science out there, or no scenario out there, that says that the phase-out of fossil fuel is what’s going to achieve 1.5C.”

During their not-so-friendly exchange, Al Jaber asked Robinson: “Please help me, show me the roadmap for a phase-out of fossil fuel that will allow for sustainable socioeconomic development, unless you want to take the world back into caves.”

It could be that there are some risks involved in having an oilman host a climate conference. Al Jaber is the chief executive of Adnoc. One might legitimately point out that he could have a conflict of interest. But he is also head of Masdar, the UAE’s renewable energy company. So one could also say that he’s investing in various possible future scenarios.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who in July had warned about “global boiling,” must have felt a little hot under the collar about Al Jaber hosting the climate conference. On December 1st he told the COP28 conference, “The science is clear. The 1.5C limit is only possible if we ultimately stop burning all fossil fuels. Not reduce, not abate. Phase out, with a clear timeframe.”

So far, over 100 countries support a phase-out of fossil fuels, which include oil, coal, and natural gas.

Perhaps the Sultan of Dubai is obnoxious and perhaps he has conflicts of interest. But the salient question is whether he is wrong about the likelihood of achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Is he perhaps just better at arithmetic with a firmer grip on what is realistically achievable than most climate activists and COP28 delegates?

Crunching numbers

Fossil fuels, in the form of oil, coal, and gas, still provide over 84% of the world’s primary energy. The image below, from Our World in Data, shows global primary energy consumption by source for 2019.

Oil, coal and natural gas accounted for 84.3% of primary energy consumption in 2019. Wind and solar provided 2.2% and 1.1% of primary energy, respectively, while biofuels and other renewables provided 0.7% and 0.9%, respectively. In total, these four categories together amount to 4.9% of primary energy use in 2019.

If you have a good magnifying glass, you will see in the image above, under the subheading for global energy derived from fossil fuels, that in 2000, 86.1% of the world’s primary energy was derived from fossil fuels. So in the 19 years between 2000 and 2019, the percentage of primary energy derived from fossil fuels decreased from 86.1% to 84.3%, a relative reduction of 2.1%. Yet in the 27 years between now and 2050, we are to entirely eliminate the use of fossil fuels.

Maybe the Sultan is onto something with his question about a roadmap. How do we think we are going to manage that?

Renewables and Electricity

Renewables are used primarily to generate electricity. About 20.4% of the world’s final energy consumption was in the form of electricity in 2022. Of the renewable sources, hydropower at 15.2% was the largest contributor, while wind and solar, respectively, provided 7.50% and 4.52% of the world’s electricity that year. Bioenergy provided 2.38% and other renewables only 0.35%. Excluding hydro, renewables generated about 14.8% of the world’s electrical power in 2022.

If non-hydro renewables provide 14.8% of the world’s electrical power, and 20.4% of the world’s final energy consumption is in the form of electricity, then these renewables provide about 3% of the world’s total energy consumption. This is not a strong reed upon which to set expectations of eliminating fossil fuels by 2050.

In 2022, almost 61% of the world’s electricity was produced from fossil fuels, mostly coal and gas. This is a mere 4% reduction from the 63.6% of electricity that was produced from fossil fuels in 1985. So, in the 38 years between 1985 and 2023, there has been an approximate 4% relative reduction in the percent of electricity produced with fossil fuels. But in the 27 years between 2023 and 2050, that is to become a 100% reduction. Once again, the Sultan’s question of just how that will happen seems legitimate.

A misdirected focus: our fundamental problem is overshoot

Since the first climate conference, the World Climate Conference organized by the World Meteorological Organization, was held in Geneva in February of 1979, the world’s CO2 emissions have doubled. That’s not surprising, since our fossil fuel consumption has doubled since that time, despite the 35 climate conferences that followed Geneva. After such a spectacular string of failures, we are now to believe that we can kick the fossil fuel habit in 27 years. To channel the Sultan, “show me the roadmap.”

In an article published on November 24, 2021 by Population Matters, shortly after COP26 in Glasgow came to an end, PIC patron Bill Rees poignantly lamented that the whole meeting was likely in vain:

It is a great irony, if not tragedy, that so many well-intentioned people, especially climate-focused non-government organisations and ordinary citizens, wasted so much time and effort at COP26 in Glasgow. It’s not that the official negotiators achieved so little, but rather that climate change is not the real existential threat, OVERSHOOT is.

Dr. Rees notes that humanity’s overshoot in terms of consumption beyond the capacity of Earth’s ecosystems to regenerate and of waste production beyond the capacity of natural systems to assimilate these wastes and pollution is the real problem.

It’s growth that’s the problem

As long as humanity persists in its quest for the holy grail of perpetual economic growth, renewable sources of energy will be used to grow the global economy, just like fossil fuels have been and continue to be used for that purpose. And as the global economy grows, it requires more and more energy to keep growing. Renewables can’t keep up with that growth. Furthermore, as long as they’re being used to promote growth, they aren’t actually saving the environment. The extraction, processing and transportation of the metals, rare earths and other components used in wind turbines and solar panels are in themselves energy-consuming and polluting and involve the use of fossil fuels.

All of which makes declarations about global boiling and targets of net zero emissions seem like so much Kabuki theatre.

The human population size will inevitably decrease. But as we continue to ignore the problem of overpopulation, this decrease is increasingly less likely to happen by design and more likely to happen through collapse, with much associated suffering by humans and non-human species. The delusion of net zero by 2050 will not help to cushion our sharp encounter with reality.

Whether we manage to ramp up the use of renewables or not, unless we address the issue of human overpopulation and concomitant overshoot, we’re on track to be going back to those caves Al Jaber mentioned.

Reprinted with permission from the author.

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