Anyone trying to understand what’s happening with the world’s energy systems right now can be forgiven if they are confused. On one hand, most people know about the climate emergency, and the need to move away from fossil fuels. On the other hand, we frequently see headlines about “record setting” levels of wind or solar power, how “coal is dead,” booming sales of electric vehicles, or how renewable energy is now cheaper than fossil fuels. Many stories in the second category suggest that the transition to a low-carbon economy is “inevitable,” or even “well underway.”
Sorting through all of this can be very daunting, especially for people who are not energy experts, but who are concerned about the climate crisis. For South Africans, understanding these issues is especially important given the country’s heavy reliance on coal, the serious problems facing Eskom, and the announced plans for its “unbundling” in order (among other things) to accelerate the shift to renewable energy sources. As my colleague Sean Sweeney has argued elsewhere, talk of “unbundling” Eskom is code for privatisation: it is a well-established part of the privatisation playbook of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
So what’s really going on? It is true that energy systems around the world are undergoing profound changes. Different countries are facing different challenges, and are tackling those challenges in different ways. But since the climate crisis requires global as well as local action, it is worth looking at the trends in order to understand the lessons.
Demand for energy is growing faster than renewable energy
Despite “record setting” growth in renewables, the overall growth in demand for energy is larger still. In March 2019, the International Energy Agency (IEA) reported that global energy demand grew by 2.3% in 2018 – the sharpest rise, and nearly twice the average rate, this decade. The surge was attributed to strong overall economic growth, as well as to record temperatures in many parts of the world, which raise demand for heating and cooling.