Fossil-fuel price spikes are causing pain but little climate payoff


For three decades, climate campaigners have fought to make fossil fuels so expensive that people would be forced to abandon them. Their dream is becoming reality: Energy prices are spiraling out of control and will soon get even worse. Yet we are no closer to solving climate change.

Energy costs increased 26% across industrialized economies last year and will rise globally by another 50% this year. While Western governments are blaming Russia’s war on Ukraine, prices were already rising because of climate policies designed to choke fossil-fuel investment. Since the 2015 Paris agreement was inked, the world’s 1,200 biggest energy corporations have slashed capital investment in oil and gas by more than two-thirds. Huge price rises are the inevitable result of forcing more energy out of an increasingly starved system.

The climate-policy approach of trying to push consumers and businesses away from fossil fuels with price spikes is causing pain with little climate payoff, for two reasons.

First, solar and wind are still only capable of meeting a fraction of global electricity needs. Even with huge subsidies and political support, solar and wind delivered just 9% of global electricity in 2020. Heating, transport and vital industrial processes account for much more energy use than electricity. This means solar and wind deliver just 1.8% of global energy supply. And electricity is the easiest of these components to decarbonize: We haven’t yet made meaningful progress greening the remaining four-fifths of global energy.

Western countries blame rising energy prices on the Ukraine war, but they were already rising prior.
AFP via Getty Images

Second, even in the rich parts of the world it is clear few people are willing to pay the phenomenal price of achieving net-zero carbon emissions. Soaring prices are hiking energy poverty in industrialized economies, and prices are set to climb even further. Germany is on track to spend more than a half-trillion dollars on climate policies by 2025 yet has only managed to reduce fossil-fuel dependency from 84% in 2000 to 77% today. McKinsey estimates getting to zero carbon will cost Europe 5.3% of its GDP in low-emission assets every year — for Germany, more than $200 billion annually. That’s more than Germany spends annually on education and police, courts and prisons combined.

Western leaders can’t continue to push expensive policies without a backlash. As energy prices soar, risks grow of resentment and strife, like France saw with the “yellow vest” protest movement.

For the poorest billions, rising energy prices are even more serious because they block the pathway out of poverty and make fertilizer unaffordable for farmers, imperiling food production. The well-off in rich countries might be able to withstand the pain of some climate policies, but emerging economies like India or low-income countries in Africa cannot afford to sacrifice poverty eradication and economic development to tackle climate change.

Wind and Solar Power
Wind and solar can only meet a small portion of the world’s electricity needs.
dpa/picture alliance via Getty Images

Globally, the inability of green energy to compete means the world is on track to remain fossil-fuel dependent. Analyzing all current and promised climate policies, the International Energy Agency finds fossil fuels will still provide two-thirds of global energy use by 2050, only a modest drop from 79% today.

And green energy’s failings are why carbon emissions are still increasing. Last year saw the highest global emissions ever. This year is likely to be higher again. Climate policy is broken. By forcing up the price of fossil fuels, policymakers put the cart in front of the horse. Instead, we need to make green energy much cheaper and more effective.

Humanity has relied on innovation to fix other big challenges. We didn’t solve air pollution by forcing everyone to stop driving but by inventing the catalytic converter that drastically lowers pollution. We didn’t slash hunger by telling everyone to eat less but through the Green Revolution that enabled farmers to produce much more food.

George W Bush
Former President George W. Bush’s investment in shale gas led to a reduction in carbon emissions.
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Yet innovation in green energy has been neglected for three decades. In 1980, the rich world spent more than 8 cents of every $100 of GDP on low-carbon technologies. As climate policies focused on making fossil fuels more expensive, green research spending halved to fewer than 4 cents of every $100.

Copenhagen Consensus researchers, including three Nobel laureate economists, have shown the most effective climate policy possible is to increase green research-and-development spending fivefold to $100 billion per year. This would still be much less than the $755 billion the world spent just last year on often-ineffective green technology.

We don’t know where the breakthroughs will happen. They could come in nuclear energy, which can provide reliable power around the clock unlike the intermittency of solar or wind but remains much more expensive than fossil fuels. With more R&D, “fourth generation” nuclear could end up providing much cheaper, safer power. But we need to look for breakthroughs across all areas of energy technology, from cheaper solar and wind with massive and very cheap storage to CO₂ extraction, fusion, second-generation biofuels and many other potential solutions.

Such innovation will create large, social benefits throughout the coming decades, where the next innovation will be built on the last. Unfortunately, much of the benefits will come after any patents have run out, which is why companies will be hesitant to invest. Instead we need public innovation investments.

The best example of game-changing climate innovation is the 10-year, $10 billion public investment in shale gas President George W. Bush launched, which ultimately led to energy companies embracing the technology. Not intended as climate policy, it led the way for a production surge of cheap gas, outcompeting a significant part of coal. Gas emits about half the CO₂; this was a major reason America has seen the single-biggest emission reduction the past decade.

We will not solve climate change by making fossil energy unaffordable but by innovating down the price of green technologies so everyone will be able to switch.

Bjorn Lomborg is president of the Copenhagen Consensus and visiting fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. His latest book is “False Alarm: How Climate Change Panic Costs Us Trillions, Hurts the Poor, and Fails to Fix the Planet.”


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