A few months ago the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) published a document called “World Energy Transitions – Outlook 2022”. The report made it clear how poor the progress in energy transition and reducing CO2 emissions has been. However, on the brighter side, it identified a clear pathway for avoiding temporary solutions to energy shortages, partly caused by the Ukraine war.
It also confirmed that this pathway will increase energy security, making the world less dependent on unreliable and/or politicised sources of energy. In particular, the report identified that the energy transition pathway required increased electrification, using renewable sources such as wind, solar, hydro and tidal, improved energy efficiency, clean hydrogen (and its derivatives), bioenergy and last-mile use of carbon capture and storage.
However, the report also identified that sufficient action towards energy transition was not taking place. In particular, it identified that to achieve the longer-term goals (broadly the next twenty years), medium-term action (the next eight years) is required urgently. However, it is clear that governments, companies and individuals are finding it difficult to balance the short term with medium and longer term requirements of energy transition.
Under economic pressure, they tend to resort to the easiest and most feasible short-term solution. In some cases, policy can be chaotic, leading to discontent and possible avoidance of the correct solutions.
This can be seen in the situation in California, where a week after a ban on petrol-powered cars was announced, residents were asked to avoid electric vehicle charging during a heatwave. This is because in the “shoulder hours”, solar panels stop producing electricity when temperatures are still high.
Sadly, this is a good example of where global warming has led to increased use of energy. The same will be true in many other situations e.g. floods requiring increased energy use for pumping out water and drying buildings.
Filling data gaps
As the UN’s 2022 report on progress on achieving Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) makes clear, failure to make enough progress in the area of energy transition to achieve these goals is not confined to the environment, although in that particular area the problem is particularly severe in the large rich countries – the largest consumers of energy.
The report makes it clear that achieving the SDGs associated with energy transition requires strong government action, which in turn requires significant public investment, something that many economies are not capable of.
Further, keeping track of energy transition progress is a big task, requiring building big datasets, filling data gaps, and construction of complex dashboards so that performance can be properly evaluated.
The UN’s report identifies that because of significant problems with obtaining up-to-date and accurate data, the dashboard may even be reflecting the situation of previous rather than current years.
What does this mean?
We believe that there is a tendency, possibly visible in the above two reports, to focus mainly on the role of government in achieving sustainable development goals and environmental targets. However, in modern, free society, achievements in these areas does not depend just on what government do, what they mandate and what they forbid.
In the last few years, we have started to see the power of others, such as investors, employees and customers, in putting pressure on companies and on each other to achieve “good” targets. Without government action, this pressure might not be effective, but combined with it, it can be much more effective, as demonstrated in the cases of the Nordic countries.
For this pressure to be effective, all parties need access to the right, high-quality, and most current data, not just as a snapshot in time, but over time. They also need up-to-date data and sophisticated analysis, which is why our work on identifying the current situation and the feasibility of a good future path, facilitated by our Natural Language Processing technology and a recent grant from Innovation UK, is so important. This work will provide a strong basis for evaluating the performance of all involved, not against a theoretical future possible achievement, but against what is really possible.