"The International Energy Agency said 5.3bn tonnes of coal equivalent were burnt in 2016, down 1.9% on the year before and 4.2% on 2014, the fastest decline since 1990-1992, when the global economy was in recession.
"Global consumption of coal will stagnate over the next half decade, the IEA forecasts, confirming the last two years’ record falls for the fossil fuel were not a blip."
The IEA report is one of a series of market sector analyses that it produces every year covering the next six years. The problem with such reports is that it is often difficult to immediately calculate its global significance.
Coal is declining globally, and has been for some years. This is good, and those attempting to hold back the fall whether in the US, Germany or Poland, are pissing in the wind. But is its decline sufficient, and complemented enough by declines in other fossil use, to warrant a degree of optimism? In political terms, does it suggest that a climate shift, what Greenpeace calls a "green tipping point", is within reach under capitalism?
Coal is one of the main sources of global energy use, and it is the most polluting. It is second only to oil, which is also heavily polluting. In the last couple of years, there have been some headlines suggesting that oil industry firms were frightened of a scenario called "peak oil demand". This isn't compatible with the record. Currently, the rapid growth in oil consumption is more than making up for the sluggish growth in coal use.
II. Nor is it compatible with most projections, which expect global oil usage to continue soaring. By 2040, which is the earliest point at which it will peak on current trends, it will have fallen very slightly in some states, such as the US, but risen sharply in industrialising societies like China and India, producing a sharp overall increase.
The overall effect of this change is to depress the share of global energy use accounted for by fossil fuels, while leaving it very high. The combined use of coal, oil and natural gas fossil fuels was 82 per cent in 2011, and probably much the same now. US Energy Information Administration suggests that on current trends, fossil fuels will still make up 77 per cent of total global energy use by 2040.
A five percent fall in the share of global energy use accounted for by fossil fuels is not negligible. But over a quarter of a century in which total energy use is expected to increase by 28 percent -- well, let's do the maths. Currently, 82 per cent of total energy usage is 471.5 quadrillion British thermal units (Btu). In 2040, 77 per cent of total energy usage will be 566.7 quadrillion Btu.
What this means is that, based on these scenarios, total carbon emissions will have significantly increased -- by about a fifth -- not fallen. This is not taking into account the likely increase in carbon emissions from the use of biofuels. Biofuels are a kind of reverse 'Carbon Capture and Storage' mechanism, in that they necessitate the clearance of forests and other vegetation currently capturing and storing carbon. They could release anything from 17 to 420 times more carbon than the fossil fuels they replace.
But what if these estimates are too conservative? As the Guardian obliquely notes, Greenpeace is a persistent critic of the IEA for significantly underestimating renewables. Given the way the IEA bases its projections on policy orientation, this is unsurprising. There is very little policy emphasis on renewables. In spite of this, year-on-year, renewable energy sources have delivered much more energy, much more efficiently and affordably, than anticipated.
Even so, despite the record increases in renewable energy consumption, the renewable sector makes up a tiny share of total global energy use. This is not because of the limits of technology. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which is in most respects extremely cautious in its projections, told us six years ago that we could have 80 per cent of our energy coming from renewable sources by 2050. The issue is policy and, beyond that, the edifice structuring policy: fossil capital.
III. In principle, capitalism could surely do without fossil capital. But the sheer amount of destruction of capital that would result would be tantamount to the impact of a war, or a Depression. For quite a large number of capitalists, it would be tantamount to burning money.
Oil platforms, coal mines, plants, refineries, pipelines, and the whole energy infrastructure around which the core industries of the world economy are built, are major, long-term investments. The cost of the original investments takes decades to be repaid. Decommission these infrastructures, as we must, and a huge amount of value goes up in smoke. Andreas Malm compares it to "an asteroid impact obliterating a whole planet of value".
Now, you can see from this why Christiana Figueres, one of the architects of the unavailing Paris Accords, and apostle of a groundless "optimism" in the climate struggle, has begun to talk up Carbon Capture and Storage. The IEA's report likewise calls for more investment on this front, and the EU has stated that it may be the only means of reducing emissions as some industries reach the limits of their energy-efficiency.
Traditionally, CCS has been seen as a way of greenwashing fossil fuels. Certainly, if CCS could be deployed at coal power stations, and carbon-emitting plants, a lot of value would be preserved. However, the technology is very under-developed, very costly, and very limited in the scope of its application. It is impossible to say how much or how quickly a sustained policy of investment could change this situation, but the current pattern suggests it would cost a huge amount for probably limited gain, in an urgent situation where every deployment of resources must count.
This suggests that CCS is currently only able to supplement an overall strategy of massively reducing reliance on fossil fuels. And there is simply no way around what that means. While climate change is a disaster for humanity, stopping climate change is a disaster for capital.
To meet the IPCC goal of reaching 80 per cent renewables by 2050, and keeping global temperatures at no higher than 2 per cent above pre-industrial averages, would require a vast, unprecedented decommissioning, a giant write-off of value. And if such a move would hit like a war, it would have to be managed like one.
As Naomi Klein has argued, it would have to entail a global mobilisation of resources, intellect and labour power of a kind we never see outside of war time. But we either get together and burn capital, burn it in vast unprecedented quantities, or we ourselves burn.