Two weeks ago I used two infographics to illustrate the dominant role of energy use in generating greenhouse gas emissions and the disportionate production of greenhouse gas emission by the rich [see ‘Where we are and what we have‘ on November 24th, 2021]. Energy use is responsible for 73% of global greenhouse gas emissions and 16% of the world’s population are responsible for 38% of global CO2 emissions. Today’s infographics illustrate the energy flows from source to consumption for the USA (above), UK and Europe (thumbnails below). In the USA fossil fuels (coal, natural gas and petroleum) are the source of nearly 80% of their energy, in the UK it is a little more than 80% and the chart for Europe is less detailed but the proportion looks similar. COP 26 committed countries to ending ‘support for the international unabated fossil fuel energy sector by the end of 2022’ and recognised ‘investing in unabated fossil-related energy projects increasingly entails both social and economic risks, especially through the form of stranded assets, and has ensuing negative impacts on government revenue, local employment, taxpayers, utility ratepayers and public health.’ However, to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels we need a strategy, a plan of action for a fundamental change in how we power industry, heat our homes and propel our vehicles. A hydrogen economy requires the production of hydrogen without using fossil fuels, electric cars and electric domestic heating requires our electricity generating capacity to be at least trebled by 2050 in order to hit the net zero target. This scale and speed of transition to zero-carbon sources is such that it will have to be achieved using an integrated blend of green energy sources, including solar, wind and nuclear energy. For example, in the UK our current electricity generating capacity is about 76 GW and 1 GW is equivalent to 3.1 million photovoltaic (PV) panels, or 364 utility scale wind turbines [www.energy.gov/eere/articles/how-much-power-1-gigawatt] so trebling capacity from one of these sources alone would imply more than 700 million PV panels, or one wind turbine every square mile. It is easy to write policies but it is much harder to implement them and make things happen especially when transformational change is required. We cannot expect things to happen simply because our leaders have signed agreements and made statements. Now, national plans are required to ween us from our addiction to fossil fuels – it will be difficult but the alternative is that global warming might cause the planet to become uninhabitable for us. It is time to stop ‘making thermodynamic whoopee with fossil fuels’ to quote Kurt Vonnegut [see ‘And then we discovered thermodynamics‘ on February 3rd, 2016].
Kurt Vonnegut, A Man without a Country, New York: Seven Stories Press, 2005. He wrote ‘we have now all but destroyed this once salubrious planet as a life-support system in fewer than two hundred years, mainly by making thermodynamic whoopee with fossil fuels’.
US Energy flow chart: https://flowcharts.llnl.gov/commodities/energy
EU Energy flow chart: https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/web/energy/energy-flow-diagrams
UK Energy flow chart: https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/energy-flow-charts#2020