Stratfor gives us good news, showing when renewables will replace fossil fuels

Summary: A key piece of the doomsters’ climate change destroys the world story is that fossil fuel use continues to increase — especially coal, which becomes the world’s top fuel in the second half of the 21st Century (as it was in the late 19thC). Here Stratfor adds to the evidence that this is not going to happen.

Opening of “When Renewables Replace Fossil Fuels”

By Ian Morris at Stratfor, 24 March 2017.

Since 1750, mankind has pumped some 150 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Almost half that amount has been emitted since 2000, 9.9 billion tons of it in 2016 alone. U.S. President Donald Trump claims to think that links between carbon emissions and climate change are “a hoax,” but if so, the hoax has taken in almost every scientist in the world. By burning fossil fuels, they believe, we have altered the chemistry of the air and the oceans. Last year was the first on record in which the atmosphere’s carbon content never dropped below 400 parts per million, a level not seen for 800,000 years. The climate is warming and becoming more volatile, the ice caps are melting, and mass extinctions are underway. Another species of plant or animal disappears forever every 20 minutes or so {Editor’s note: that’s 26 thousand per year, which is not remotely correct}.

Although this is shocking, it is hardly news, and strategic forecasters have been arguing for years over what its geopolitical consequences will be. But now it seems that some answers to this question are beginning to emerge.

Not If, but When.

Most analysts think that the world’s demand for energy will keep growing in the near future. But they also believe that as time passes, renewable sources of energy — hydroelectric, biomass and perhaps nuclear energy, but above all wind and solar — will replace fossil fuels, reducing carbon emissions. The main disagreements are over how quickly that will happen.

Most experts have concluded that change will come slowly. Analysts at Shell predict it will take a quarter of a century to reach a tipping point where the annual output of renewable energy matches the overall growth in demand, and the amount of carbon being released into the atmosphere levels off. Their peers at BP think 30 years will pass before then; those at Exxon say 75. The International Energy Agency (IEA) largely agrees, though it recently cut its estimate from 60 years to 35.

When compared with actual data, however, forecasters’ records have consistently erred on the side of conservatism. Shell and BP base their estimates out to 2040 on the assumption that total energy demand will grow by 1.4% each year, even though the recent rate has been more like 1.0%. They, Exxon and the IEA assume that solar and wind energy supplies will grow between 5% and 9.5% each year, even though the recent rate has been above 15%, and that other non-fossil-fuel sources (nuclear, hydroelectric and biomass power) will expand between 1.4% and 1.9% annually, despite their recent performance of around 2.3%. All conclude that the demand for fossil fuels will continue growing through the 2020s and 2030s at 0.7-1.2% per year, though the recent trend has been 0.5%.

The IEA, at least, has been ready to admit its mistakes, even if it has been slow to correct them. Back in 2002, it predicted that in 2015 wind and solar sources would produce about 40 and 10 gigawatts (1 GW is equivalent to 1 billion watts) respectively in 2015. In 2005, it revised its estimates to 170 and 20 GW, hiking them up again in 2010 to 340 and 75. But the actual outputs were 430 GW of wind power and 240 GW of solar power. By that point, wind and solar energy accounted for one-third of the total global increase in energy demand.

Experts argue over why one another’s guesses have been so wrong (and so consistently wrong in the same direction), but their mistakes remind us of an obvious point: No one knows what will happen. The best we can do is to make our assumptions explicit, map out their consequences and ask whether they are plausible. In this spirit, Kingsmill Bond, a new energy strategist for the investment research company TS Lombard, recently published the following chart showing when the tipping point described above will arrive under different assumptions about growth in demand and solar and wind power.

Tipping point in energy evolution

Which columns and rows we select depends on our guesses about future policies and attitudes, engineers’ abilities to solve daunting technical problems, enthusiasm for investment in infrastructure and, of course, the performance of the global economy. But despite this heaping up of “ifs,” “buts” and “maybes,” neither the top and bottom rows nor the left- and right-hand columns seem very likely.

That leaves us in the middle of the grid, with a tipping point coming in the 2020s or 2030s. Bond himself leans earlier rather than later, expecting wind and solar energy to grow at 20% and overall demand at 1%, in large part because of gains in efficiency. If he’s right, the lines will cross in 2020, and by the early 2040s half of the world’s energy will come from renewables. If so, then Rabah Arezki, the head of commodities at the International Monetary Fund, must also be right when he says we stand “at the onset of the biggest disruption in oil markets ever.” …

Imagining a World After Fossil Fuels
is republished with permission of Stratfor.


The good news is that the nightmares are probably wrong

The IPCC’s AR5 report gave four scenarios for the future, defined by the forcings generated by anthropogenic effects (in watts per square meter of the Earth’s surface), identified by the forcing as of 2100 — ranging an optimistic 2.6 to a worst case 8.5. The excellent the RCP Database shows the annual CO2 emissions from each during the 21st century.

For years we have been bombarded by studies and media articles about the latter, describing its nightmarish results. — many misleadingly calling it a “business as usual” scenario.

RCPs - legend

The astonishing progress of renewables — solar is now cheaper than grid electricity in favorable regions — gives high odds that CO2 emissions will follow one of the slower paths. Advances in other sources, such as advanced nukes and fusion (Tri Alpha Fusion has attracted hundreds of millions in private funding), suggest that by the middle of the 21st century CO2 emissions might begin falling (as in the RCP2.6 scenario).

RCPs - CO2 emissions from fossil fuels

Ian Morris

About the author

Ian Morris is a historian and archaeologist. He received his doctorate from Cambridge University. He is currently a Professor of Classics at Stanford, has published twelve books, and has directed excavations in Greece and Italy.

Dr. Morris’ bestsellers include Why the West Rules – for Now: The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal About the Future (2010) and War! What Is It Good For? Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots (2014, see Martin van Creveld’s review). His most recent book is Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values Evolve (2015).

Stratfor logo

About Stratfor

Founded in 1996, Stratfor provides strategic analysis and forecasting to individuals and organizations around the world. By placing global events in a geopolitical framework, we help customers anticipate opportunities and better understand international developments. They believe that transformative world events are not random and are, indeed, predictable. See their About Page for more information.

For More Information

More good news: “IEA finds CO2 emissions flat for third straight year even as global economy grew in 2016” — press release from the IEA, 17 March 2017.

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. For more information about this vital issue see the keys to understanding climate change and these posts about the politics of climate change…

  1. How we broke the climate change debates. Lessons learned for the future.
  2. Is our certain fate a coal-burning climate apocalypse? No!
  3. Manufacturing climate nightmares: misusing science to create horrific predictions.
  4. Good news! Coal bankruptcies point to a better future for our climate.
  5. Britain joins the shift from coal, taking us away from the climate nightmare.
  6. Good news from China about climate change!
  7. Good news for the New Year! Salon explains that the global climate emergency is over.

To learn more about the state of climate change…

 The Rightful Place of Science: Disasters and Climate Change
Available at Amazon.

… see The Rightful Place of Science: Disasters and Climate Change by Roger Pielke Jr. (Prof of Environmental Studies at U of CO-Boulder, and Director of their Center for Science and Technology Policy Research). From the publisher…

“In recent years the media, politicians, and activists have popularized the notion that climate change has made disasters worse. But what does the science actually say? Roger Pielke, Jr. takes a close look at the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the underlying scientific research, and the data to give you the latest science on disasters and climate change. What he finds may surprise you and raise questions about the role of science in political debates.”

24 thoughts on “Stratfor gives us good news, showing when renewables will replace fossil fuels”

  1. The ice caps are melting? How fast, if at all, in Antarctica? Who says so and how do they know? The temperature needs to rise and rise before there will be any melting of any consequence in Antarctica. No sign of that happening yet.

      1. About the melting ice caps

        The arctic ice cap is melting as the world warms, and has been shrinking for centuries (it almost reached the tip of Scotland during the Little Ice Age).

        The evidence about Antarctica is less certain, making that statement an exaggeration of the current consensus of climate scientists. However, it accurately reflects the information in the most recent IPCC report. The Executive Summary in Chapter Four of the IPCC’s AR5 (2014) report said “The Antarctic ice sheet has been losing ice during the last two decades (high confidence). There is very high confidence that these losses are mainly from the northern Antarctic Peninsula and the Amundsen Sea sector of West Antarctica…” This is mostly due to warming from the oceans. But the data for antarctic mass change was sparse at that time.

        The most reliable data source is the GRACE (Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment) satellite data, begun in 2002. Due to natural variations and the small changes in total ice mass (as a percent of total), many years are required to get a clear signal.

        The current peer-reviewed literature sees no strong conclusions about changes in the overall mass balance in Antarctica. For example, see “Anthropogenic impact on Antarctic surface mass balance, currently masked by natural variability, to emerge by mid-century” by Michael Previdi and Lorenzo M Polvani in Environmental Research Letters, 25 August 2016 – Abstract:

        “Global and regional climate models robustly simulate increases in Antarctic surface mass balance (SMB) during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries in response to anthropogenic global warming. Despite these robust model projections, however, observations indicate that there has been no significant change in Antarctic SMB in recent decades. We show that this apparent discrepancy between models and observations can be explained by the fact that the anthropogenic climate change signal during the second half of the twentieth century is small compared to the noise associated with natural climate variability. Using an ensemble of 35 global coupled climate models to separate signal and noise, we find that the forced SMB increase due to global warming in recent decades is unlikely to be detectable as a result of large natural SMB variability. However, our analysis reveals that the anthropogenic impact on Antarctic SMB is very likely to emerge from natural variability by the middle of the current century, thus mitigating future increases in global sea level.”

  2. All the scenarios like the above seem to say that we just noticed a possible problem, so let’s start today with projecting how things will be. Of course that is excellent for the theorist, as whatever happens is several years from now.

    If we were to start the projections from even five years ago, we’d see how already out of reality they were. I’m talking about the assumptions behind the projections – getting some sense of reality to going forward that connects with even recent history.

    It is weird how even the IPCC continue to use projections for the future that don’t reflect what happened recently. Why are we talking about things going off the rails suddenly when there is no basis for a change in circumstance?

    1. Doug,

      “All the scenarios like the above seem to say that we just noticed a possible problem”

      I don’t understand. To what scenarios are your referring, saying that “we just noticed a problem”?

      “It is weird how even the IPCC continue to use projections for the future that don’t reflect what happened recently.”

      Can you explain? That statement appears quite false.

    2. A lot of it is probably that the last several years were noticeably hot in ways that could be popularly perceived as well as a long-term warming trend (even if we leave aside any disputes over who did it).

      As for the IPCC they meet every six or seven years, don’t they? So a lot of this is probably that there hasn’t been another IPCC conference project since the last one, and I think just when they were wrapping up, solar power at least had JUST started its recent price drops.

      1. Dana,

        “A lot of it is probably that the last several years were noticeably hot in ways”

        The average world temperature increase over the last several years was a a few degrees. The temperature increase since the last El Nino peak was less than a degree. None of these are “noticably hot”, esp since the heat was greatest in the poles (where the population is roughly zero percent of the world’s total).

        “As for the IPCC they meet every six or seven years”

        The last IPCC report, AR5, was published in 2014.

  3. I agree with the Editor in his comment about the disappearing species. When investigated, it is found out to be simplistic models using other models as input data – turtles all the way down. When actually challenged to name the genus and species that have been made extinct, there is armwaving and talk of undocumented species. Usually followed with a comment that science needs more money to document the extinction.

  4. This article is by a non-scientist on a very complex scientific matter-climate change. Climate change is not understood very well. Even the IPCC has said that the “climate system is a coupled non-linear chaotic system, and therefore the long-term prediction of future climate states is not possible. ” Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2001 Assessment Report.

    The IPPC:

    “Averaged over all land and ocean surfaces, temperatures warmed roughly 1.53 degrees Fahrenheit (0.85 degrees Celsius) from 1880 to 2012, [132 years or 0.0065C/ year or 0.64C/century] according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.”

    A study by Phillip Lloyd found that temperatures changes in in the past 8,000 years were about 1.0 degree C per century:

    Abstract from Lloyd study : “ … records up to 8000 years before present, from several ice cores were examined. The differences in temperatures between all records which are approximately a century apart were determined, after any trends in the data had been removed. The differences were close to normally distributed. The average standard deviation of temperature was 0.98 ± 0.27 °C [on a per century basis]. This suggests that while some portion of the temperature change observed in the 20th century was probably caused by greenhouse gases, there is a strong likelihood that the major portion was due to natural variations.”

    The IPPC’s claim of temperature increase from 1880 to 2012 (0.64 C per century) is below the range for variation (1.0 degree C per century) found by the Lloyd study for the 8,000 years (before present) covered by the study:

    More on natural variation :

    There are no scientific papers that show by empirical evidence that humans (mostly through CO2 emissions) have ever been the cause of global warming. We have been gradually warming since the end of the last ice age (albeit a bit erratically). When it warms up, ice melts and oceans outgas CO2 into the atmosphere. Correlation is not evidence of causation.

    As far as wind and solar energy, how is South Australia coming?

    1. Correction to my post:

      There are no scientific papers that show by empirical evidence that humans (mostly through CO2 emissions) have ever been the [PRIMARY] cause of global warming.

  5. It is disappointing that Stratfor, a well-regarded authority on geopolitical issues, should carry this evidence-free polemic by a classics professor. At least Stratfor has the grace to deny responsibility for the views of its guest authors!

    The author offers no authority for any of his extreme claims regarding “mass extinctions” (every 20 minutes) and “melting ice caps” and “every scientist in the world” disagrees with the US President and “most analysts believe” that wind and solar (mainly) will replace fossil fuels.

    The Editor sees a saving grace in that this contributor does not go along with the absurd RCP8.5 prediction that the world will soon turn back to coal for most of its energy needs. But nor does anybody else. Nobody needs to believe that the 8.5 absurdities might really happen – it is just a propaganda weapon that relies on the difficulty of falsifying anything in this arcane and speculative field. Has anybody ever seen a paper that attempts to ascribe a probability to 8.5?

    1. Barry,

      The Stratfor article was useful and important — once one gets beyond the obligatory Global Warming is Killing Us All section. It the opening statement of alegiance to the true faith. Today it is necessary to have that at the start when discussing these issues, or suffer the fate of Roger Pielke Jr, now studying sports in the Athletic Department of U CO. Stratfor is a business; they don’t court controversy unless its profitable to do so.

      All that is especially important when debunking the nightmare climate scenario.

      So just nod in passing at the opening, and move on to the real content.

  6. Alfred (Melbourne)

    “The astonishing progress of renewables — solar is now cheaper than grid electricity in favorable regions — gives high odds that CO2 emissions will follow one of the slower paths”

    Here, in Australia, we have had a lot of ambitious politicians who have greatly encouraged the “transition” to so-called Renewable Energy. South Australia has been leader of the pack. Consequently, our wholesale electricity prices have more than doubled over the past 10 years. In South Australia, the wholesale electricity price is occasionally 200 times that of the USA.

    South Australia ought ought to be the poster boy of RE – lots of sunshine and wind. The fact that this has not translated into lower – or even stable – electricity prices disproves your thesis.

    The problem with solar and wind is that the sun does not always shine and the wind does not always blow. In Germany, another “progressive” nation, the data is readily available and here it is for electricity production:

    At this moment in time, there is zero solar and 23GW of wind. Last December, for 10 days the wind did not blow and there was no sun. Change the dates on the left of the screen and you will find it. All electricity was coming from conventional sources plus imports of 10GW at times. Essentially, Germany’s electric grid was rescued by the conventional sources of electricity of neighbouring states.

    The lesson from this is that electricity is a good that has a variable utility. 1GW of wind in the middle of the night is not worth the same as 1GW during the working-day when there is no wind and no sun.

    1. Alfred,

      I don’t know what the problem is in Australia, if they can’t do cheap solar. Incompetent, corrupt, stupid, or misreported results? All or none of these. But in the rest of the world solar is running in favorable locations at less than competing sources — often at less than grid prices. This WaPo article describes some of these developments.

      So you can consider yourself much smarter than the rest of the world, and watch. Here is a Dec 2016 IEA report on current renewable energy auctions around the world. See some of the recent stories.

      Bloomberg: “Mexico First Power Auction Awards 1,720 Megawatts of Wind, Solar“, March 2016.

      WSJ: “Chile Awards Contracts in Its Largest Power Auction“, August 2016 — “Chile awarded several energy contracts Wednesday in the country’s largest-ever power auction, which authorities say will sharply reduce electricity costs.” Bloomberg reports that the winning solar bid was at half the price of coal.

      Fortune: “A Jaw-Dropping World Record Solar Price Was Just Bid in Abu Dhabi“, Sept 2016.

      Fortune: “AEP taking bids for 350 megawatts of Ohio wind, solar power projects“, Dec 2016.

      EQ Magzine (energy industry): See the list of bids for this project: “750 MW Rewa solar project to break new ground

      Bloomberg: “Saudi Arabia Plans the World’s Cheapest Power With Solar and Wind“, Feb 2017.

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  8. Generally, estimates of levelized cost of power sources as made by renewable friendly analysts, fail miserably
    in calculating the side effect costs of renewables, which are considerable. Essentially we are talking duplication of generation capacity, which drives up the costs of reliable power plants since their capacity is reduced by accepting toxic solar and wind power onto the grid.

    This statement : “Such a scenario would assume continuation of existing trends through 2100. ” is by far the most important – it suggests that global warming alarmists are exceedingly ignorant of future energy technologies as well as the by now quite obvious fact that electric cars are poised to dominate and replace gas powered cars, just as soon as the widely anticipated further reduction of battery prices , due to automated production (for certain) and better cathodes using nano tehcnology (near certain). Either one of these prospective developments drives cost of batteries below the magic $100 per kWhr level, at which electric cars become cheaper to build.

    So it is ironclad economics that replaces fossil fueled personal vehicles. At the more important grid level, biofuels are now considered fraudulent low carbon fuels – they increase emissions. The power generation technology that will dominate and replace all others will be molten salt nucear reactors,some possibly fueled by Thorium, but most using uranium. Even the most imaginative anti-nuclear folk will find it impossible to even imagine a scenario in which anything bad happens from the use of molten salt reactors. They will even be located within cities and towns. They can produce power cheaper than any other technology and can even operate as peak level plants, since they can load-follow.

    The world may eventually be smart enough to realize that nuclear wastes , recently shown to be hundreds of times less toxic than solar panel wastes, contain enormous amounts of residual energy that can perform many tasks, an obvious one being desalinization of seawater on a grand scale. The current “best idea” is to bury the “nuclear wastes” way underground, where its energy can perform the valuable service of heating abandoned coal mines. There are no such things as nuclear wastes, as one expert wrote. Only stupid humans too stupid to see an obvious , enormous amount of free energy .

    1. arthur,

      You make many good points. Some I don’t understand.

      “it suggests that global warming alarmists”

      Why do you believe that describes the author? Unless you consider the majority opinion among climate scientists to be “alarmists”? I use the term for those with views more extreme than the IPCC.

      “are exceedingly ignorant of future energy technologies”

      I very much doubt that.

      “as well as the by now quite obvious fact that electric cars are poised to dominate and replace gas powered cars”

      Why do you believe the author is “ignorant” of that?

      “The power generation technology that will dominate and replace all others will be molten salt nucear reactors,some possibly fueled by Thorium”

      I’ll bet against that. But only time will tell. The only thing we know is that such long-term forecasts about energy should be made only tentatively, as they usually prove embarrassingly wrong.

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