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LA refinery 2020

An aerial view shows Marathon Petroleum Corporation's Los Angeles refinery on April 22, 2020. (Photo: David McNew/Getty Images)

'Speeding in the Wrong Direction,' Fossil Fuel Demand Tops Pre-Pandemic Levels

"So much for 'building back better' and a 'green recovery,'" said youth climate leader Greta Thunberg.

Jessica Corbett

Climate campaigners and energy experts are responding to a recent rise in fossil fuel demand by reiterating the necessity of rapidly transitioning to renewable sources like solar and wind, with Swedish activist Greta Thunberg warning Monday that "we are still speeding in the wrong direction."

Thunberg yet again took aim at world leaders' empty promises to combat the climate emergency, including through policies and investments provoked by the Covid-19 pandemic. As she put it: "So much for 'building back better' and a 'green recovery.'"

The 18-year-old—whose solo protests outside the Swedish Parliament sparked the global youth-led Fridays for Future movement—was reacting on Twitter to new reporting from Reuters that demand for coal and gas has topped pre-coronavirus highs, "with oil not far behind, dealing a setback to hopes the pandemic would spur a faster transition to clean energy."

Reuters highlighted figures from the International Energy Agency (IEA), the global energy watchdog which made clear in May that countries' current climate pledges are deeply inadequate and allowing new fossil fuel projects is incompatible with the global goal to dramatically cut planet-heating pollution.

Three-quarters of the world's total energy demand is still met by fossil fuels and both coal and gas demand are projected to surpass 2019 levels, according to the IEA. Coal demand is expected to rise 4.5% this year and gas demand is on track to increase 3.2%, after falling 1.9% last year.

As the news agency reported:

Global natural gas shortages, record gas and coal prices, a power crunch in China, and a three-year high on oil prices all tell one story—demand for energy has roared back and the world still needs fossil fuels to meet most of those energy needs.

"The demand fall during the pandemic was entirely linked to governments' decision to restrict movements and had nothing to do with the energy transition," Cuneyt Kazokoglu, head of oil demand analysis at FGE told Reuters.

"The energy transition and decarbonization are decade-long strategies and do not happen overnight."

Fatih Birol, head of the Paris-based IEA, has recently not only agreed with the consultant's analysis but also made a case for transitioning power systems.

Faced with a steep rise in European gas prices last month, Birol said in a statement that "it is inaccurate and misleading to lay the responsibility at the door of the clean energy transition."

"Today's situation is a reminder to governments, especially as we seek to accelerate clean energy transitions, of the importance of secure and affordable energy supplies—particularly for the most vulnerable people in our societies," Birol added. "Well-managed clean energy transitions are a solution to the issues that we are seeing in gas and electricity markets today—not the cause of them."

"Well-managed clean energy transitions are a solution to the issues that we are seeing in gas and electricity markets today—not the cause of them."
—Fatih Birol, IEA

Reporting last week on the rising demand for gas and its impact on electricity bills and factories, The New York Times noted that "growing concerns about climate change, expressed by shareholders or via court cases like the decision by a Dutch court in May ordering Royal Dutch Shell to cut greenhouse-gas emissions, may make some companies hesitate to invest in new multibillion-dollar fossil fuel projects."

While one expert at the consultancy Rystad Energy suggested that such hesitancy could lead to "more volatile" markets, the Times added that a shift to power from clean sources like wind and solar eventually "may help protect consumers from the tyranny of the global commodity markets," though "the events of this fall suggest that goal is some distance away."

In response to that report, some experts called for speeding up the transition to clean energy and storage rather than clinging to gas. The Times coverage came as youth climate leaders, including Thunberg and Ugandan activist Vanessa Nakate, marched through Milan, Italy.

That march followed the United Nations-sponsored Youth4Climate summit that featured speeches from Thunberg and Nakate, and was held to craft proposals for attendees of the U.N. conference known as COP 26, set to begin in Glasgow, Scotland later this month.

"'Build back better.' Blah blah blah," Thunberg said in her address. "This is all we hear from our so-called leaders. Words—words that sound great but so far have led to no action. Our hopes and dreams drowned in their empty words and promises."


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