The revolution of renewable energy, something we can read in the papers almost daily, can be seen in the graph above as the green and yellow bars in the bottom-right corner. The graph presents amounts of energy production, including the much-emphasized energy efficiency and saving measures we have taken.
On top of this, we also need to add all the fuels (and their emissions) used to manufacture the growing amount of goods imported from China and other countries. Even if the graph shows a somewhat decreasing trend, the inconvenient truth is that when international trade is accounted for, the much advertised “decoupling” of energy use and economic growth has not happened at significant scale in Europe, or elsewhere. Globally, economic growth and energy consumption growth have gone hand in hand.
Small results at great costs
The renewable energy revolution depicted in the first graph is a result of spending hundreds of billions of euros, much of what has been public sector (ie. taxpayer) money. While cutting emissions is very important, we need to pay close attention to cost-efficiency, as the same money has a multitude of other good uses. These include education, social security and many other valuable services that have been under a constant threat of public spending cuts and austerity measures. And even if we do use public money for emissions reductions, we need to look carefully where we get the most bang for our buck. The combined share of wind and solar has risen from zero to seven percent in the 2000s, which is less than half a percentage point per year. At this pace, it might take centuries to reach the zero-carbon society we are aiming for. And we only have twenty or thirty years.
Are we increasing the pace?
After a slow start, we have been increasing our pace, right? No, not really. The graph below shows two lines. The blue one includes all renewable energy (also bioenergy), and the green shows all energy production not based on combustion (low-carbon energy sources, including nuclear energy). The situation with low-carbon energy has been stagnant for half a decade. This is not a surprise as such, as much of political energy and resources of the European “Energiewende”, or energy revolution, has been directed to make low-carbon nuclear energy harder and more expensive to build and operate everywhere. Even so, European nuclear provided as much low-carbon energy in 2017 as did wind, solar and hydro put together.
Another piece of evidence for the slow progress are the emissions from the European energy sector, which have not decreased for years. The Great Recession crashed both the European economy and emissions in 2008 and 2009. As the following Euro-crisis started to ease, the energy sector emissions have actually increased from 2014 onwards. And on top of this are the emissions from an increasing amount of imported goods. However, in accordance to our climate goals and promises, we should be seeing a five to ten percent annual decrease in emissions.
Beyond the headlines and speeches, the energy revolution has been a marginal one, and it has resulted in rather underwhelming emissions reductions. A significant reason for this failure has been the discriminatory nuclear energy policies practiced by many European countries as well as the European Union. Given that what we have been doing for almost two decades has not been working, perhaps we should shift our policies to include nuclear energy as an equal solution to climate change?