It takes 1.5km to brake a coal train to a standstill and nearly 9km to stop an oil supertanker. BP’s Statistical Review of World Energy, released last week, shows the world’s energy economy has a similar inertia.
Despite demands for rapid transformation for the sake of the environment, the global complex of mines, wells, pipelines, wind farms, nuclear plants, power lines and petrol stations changes very slowly.
Nor is it changing in the right direction – 2010 was the hottest year on record; last year the 10th hottest, despite cooling currents in the Pacific. The Arctic ice shrank to the smallest volume ever. While the ice melts, changes in our energy economy are moving at a glacial place.
To slow the progress of global warming, carbon-dioxide emissions need to fall. Instead, they rose by 3 per cent; for all our environmental policies, emissions have dropped only in years of global recession.
Higher emissions were driven by coal, whose use was up a remarkable 5.3 per cent last year. In the energy world, that is rapid change – but in the wrong direction. Often thought of as a 19th-century fuel, coal’s resurgence is, led, not surprisingly, by China. The Chinese now burn half of the world’s coal.
Not since 1965 has coal use exceeded oil, but at this rate, King Coal could be again ahead of Big Oil within three years. That is not good news for the Arabian Gulf: oil producers here are enjoying high prices, but at the cost of losing their market.
For all the supposed success of renewable energy – solar and wind power – in Germany, Spain, Italy and Portugal, their coal use, too, went up sharply. With its energy policy driven by whim and political pandering, Germany’s famed solar-power programme, in a country as sunny as Alaska, was outweighed by shutdown of its nuclear plants.