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Fossil fuels reliance hampers net zero

As the unprecedented heatwaves wreck crops and burn trees across Europe and parts of America, the urgency to reduce emissions has also heated up. Headline after headline warns us that we are far from meeting zero emissions by 2050, or even China's target by 2060. Nor is it hopeful that we will curb the average world temperature rising to 1.5 degrees.

Regardless of the arguments about whether we are doing enough, unfortunately we have to face the fact that humanity will be locked into its dependence on fossil fuels for decades because we just can’t meet demand from renewables. While renewable energy production is making major progress, it is not happening quickly enough to displace the vast, and growing, global fossil fuel usage.

By the end of 2022, renewables were generating just 14 per cent of global primary energy, according to Our World in Data. It is worth noting that in terms of electricity generation only, renewables now contribute to around a third of all generation – on course to hit 35 per cent by 2025, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).

But meanwhile, global energy demand is set to double by 2040, largely due to the economic growth in countries including China, India, Brazil, Indonesia, and the Middle East, the US Department of Energy has said.

While the pace of renewable energy rollouts has ratcheted up, the IEA has also warned that this is precipitating a commensurate demand for minerals. By 2040, the demand for minerals needed for renewable energy products such as solar panels is already on course to double, while more ambitious climate policies could see demand increase by up to fourfold.

The issue here is not that there aren't enough mines and minerals available to meet this rising demand, it is that the locations of these minerals are often problematic, and reliable supply may depend on resolving key geopolitical struggles.

A major source of the minerals required for renewable production is China, and Western nations may be increasingly unwilling to buy from China, fearing this would give China the potential for greater economic growth – something which may be regarded as a security threat.

Africa is also a key source of minerals, and instability, and legal red-tape means obtaining minerals has become increasingly difficult in recent decades.

Even if these problems are solved, global efforts to move away from fossil fuels are hampered by government reluctance to force through the policy changes needed to reduce pollution and save the planet.

The lack of coherent policy and regulation, including incentives and financial support for the clean transition, is a major obstacle. Quote

Addressing this is vital in the effort to solve the inconstancy in power generation from key renewable sources such as solar and wind. When the wind doesn't blow and the sun doesn't shine, falls in power production can be difficult to make up with other sources. 

Currently, fossil fuels tend to plug this gap. However, investment in large battery storage facilities and other continuous renewable power sources, such as geothermal energy, can balance grids and provide reliable energy.

Without major international efforts to bring these technologies online, fossil fuels aren't disappearing anywhere fast. Meanwhile, global warming continues to endanger our earth. The terrifying heatwaves on every continent of the Earth in 2023, including during the Antarctic winter, highlight how we are still losing this battle. Levels of carbon dioxide going into the atmosphere are still rising, and, while our dependence on fossil fuel remains, we must act to reduce the harm this is doing.

This includes focusing on solutions that make the existing fossil fuel sources of energy less intensively polluting, through carbon capture and storage, and through finding greater efficiencies. Furthermore, governments must invest in educating the public on the value of energy saving and should provide meaningful incentives to individuals for energy efficiency. They must also ensure adequate funding for research institutions and universities to hasten the development of practicable solutions rooted in science.

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Dr Abdullah Bilhaif Al Nuaimi is a researcher, and a former minister for the UAE government.

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