Three interesting articles caught my attention this month:
- Big Oil’s Net-Zero Plans Show the Hard Limits of Carbon Offsets (Bloomberg, march 1, 2021)
- Bank of Italy warns us of risks associated to greenwashing [ITA only] (Banca d’Italia paper n° 608 – Banche centrali, rischi climatici e finanza sostenibile, march 2021)
- Russia Wants to Use a Forest Bigger Than India to Offset Carbon (Bloomberg, march 23, 2021)
Carbon Offset is the “emergency exit” offered to companies and Governments to make good on pledges to achieve carbon neutrality made to the general public and to the financial world which is increasingly including sustainability into its guiding principles for the management of risk and investments (as an example, read the 2021 letter to clients sent by BlackRock, the largest investment fund in the world: in essence this emergency exit allows entities to get away not by cutting emissions, but by compensating them.
The problem however does NOT go away: that siberian forest already exists and is already doing its best to suck up emissions but, despite its hard work, the planet is choking. Should Russia sell these Carbon Offset Credits, those who buy them could claim they have made their operations more sustainable, while spewing emissions exactly at their previous rate!
In other words, we’re sweeping dirt under the rug, and this is the reason prompting the analysts at the Bank of Italy to ring the alarm bell against remedies who lead us to believe problems are being tackled, while in reality they’re not.
And first and foremost among those problems is waste.
We all know using energy causes greenhouse gas emissions: we could even say this is an inevitable consequence of the Second Law of Thermodynamics which says entropy in the Universe can only grow. Coming a little down from such a cosmogonic viewpoint we know that, to produce work, energy must be transformed into highly usable forms such as electricity, and all such transformations yield less than 100%: what’s not used gets dispersed, mostly as heat.
Not everybody knows the magnitude of such waste, though: the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory calculated it for the United States’ energy budget, giving us this infographic:
You read it from the left-hand side (where each box represents a different energy source) all the way to the right, where all the energy is either used (Energy services, dark grey, about 1/3 of total) or wasted (Rejected energy, light grey, about 2/3).
There are many points to note:
- will all due respect for those extolling the virtues of new turbogas generators of sky-high efficiency, generating electricity still wastes two-thirds of the energy it consumes;
- on the contrary, much-maligned about home heating is relatively more frugal, using two-third of the energy it consumes;
- Industry does not fare that badly either, almost achieving 50% usage;
- Transportation is both the largest consumer and the most wasteful, throwing away a whopping 80% of the consumed energy, which comes mostly from hydrocarbons;
- very polluting (but very cheap) coal still feeds one third of the electricity generated in America.
Let’s not forget these data are relative to the United States, and Europe’s situation is likely/hopefully a little better, but the main point is still valid: