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The Hazards of EIA Energy Forecasts

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The Hazards of EIA Energy Forecasts
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Accepting the conclusions of the latest energy outlook, released last week by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) means also accepting certain climate catastrophe.

As we have noted before, the EIA has made a routine out of releasing unrealistic, distorted and dangerous outlooks on the future of global energy demand. These projections should come with a warning label.


Assuming this scenario will become reality also means accepting the consequences: total failure to stop dangerous climate change. It's important to read the fine print.

The EIA's reference case suggests that fossil fuels will still account for 77 percent of energy use in 2040 alongside rising energy demand. Climate science however, shows that global greenhouse gas emissions must be cut in half well before 2040 in order to have a good chance of avoiding the worst expected climate impacts (and eventually cut to zero mid-century). You can't accept one without the other.

No one can credibly claim to predict the future. However, energy modelers can test specific assumptions to gain insight into what's possible. So what assumptions were used to create the EIA's latest base-case scenario? Here's a sample:

  • Current laws and regulations, including those related to climate change, will not change from today beyond 2040.
  • Contrary to clear trends already underway, electric vehicles fail to meaningfully replace internal combustion engines (only 3 percent of global transportation projected to be electrically powered by 2040).
  • In spite of low and rapidly falling costs, renewable energy fails to meaningfully displace coal and natural gas-fired electricity.

What is the intended value of creating energy outlooks using dangerous assumptions like these? It's no wonder that the EIA reached this absurd conclusion:

'Through 2040, the IEO2017 projects increased world consumption of marketed energy from all fuel sources, except for coal demand, which is projected to remain essentially flat.'

It can be useful of course to contrast existing policy with the future we are trying to achieve to reveal the size of the gap, but that doesn't seem to be the EIA's goal here. If it was, such a comparison would feature prominently. Instead, the EIA appears to cherry-pick assumptions that would protect the fossil fuel industry from difficult questions about its viability in a low-carbon world, while failing to include a scenario which considers what reaching climate success would look like.

Of course, the EIA isn't alone in creating questionable energy outlooks seemingly designed to protect the fossil fuel industry from the difficult realities of the required energy transition. The world's largest oil companies have long been putting out self-serving outlooks to distort our view of the future to their interest. Even the highly influential International Energy Agency has repeatedly failed to put a model that centers climate safety at the heart of its World Energy Outlook.

It's no secret that our perception of the future shapes our decision-making today. The fossil fuel industry needs investors and government to believe it will continue to grow. Flawed energy scenarios make that fiction possible. This works for the fossil fuel companies, but what about the rest of us?

For anyone who actually want to use energy forecasts as a tool to inform sound decision-making, for directing investment wisely, and for meeting the obvious goal of achieving climate safety—we need outlooks with credible assumptions. It's a shame we can't trust the EIA to provide them.

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An illustration depicts the extinct woolly rhino. Heinrich Harder / Wikimedia Commons

The last Ice Age eliminated some giant mammals, like the woolly rhino. Conventional thinking initially attributed their extinction to hunting. While overhunting may have contributed, a new study pinpointed a different reason for the woolly rhinos' extinction: climate change.

The last of the woolly rhinos went extinct in Siberia nearly 14,000 years ago, just when the Earth's climate began changing from its frozen conditions to something warmer, wetter and less favorable to the large land mammal. DNA tests conducted by scientists on 14 well-preserved rhinos point to rapid warming as the culprit, CNN reported.

"Humans are well known to alter their environment and so the assumption is that if it was a large animal it would have been useful to people as food and that must have caused its demise," says Edana Lord, a graduate student at the Center for Paleogenetics in Stockholm, Sweden, and co-first author of the paper, Smithsonian Magazine reported. "But our findings highlight the role of rapid climate change in the woolly rhino's extinction."

The study, published in Current Biology, notes that the rhino population stayed fairly consistent for tens of thousands of years until 18,500 years ago. That means that people and rhinos lived together in Northern Siberia for roughly 13,000 years before rhinos went extinct, Science News reported.

The findings are an ominous harbinger for large species during the current climate crisis. As EcoWatch reported, nearly 1,000 species are expected to go extinct within the next 100 years due to their inability to adapt to a rapidly changing climate. Tigers, eagles and rhinos are especially vulnerable.

The difference between now and the phenomenon 14,000 years ago is that human activity is directly responsible for the current climate crisis.

To figure out the cause of the woolly rhinos' extinction, scientists examined DNA from different rhinos across Siberia. The tissue, bone and hair samples allowed them to deduce the population size and diversity for tens of thousands of years prior to extinction, CNN reported.

Researchers spent years exploring the Siberian permafrost to find enough samples. Then they had to look for pristine genetic material, Smithsonian Magazine reported.

It turns out the wooly rhinos actually thrived as they lived alongside humans.

"It was initially thought that humans appeared in northeastern Siberia fourteen or fifteen thousand years ago, around when the woolly rhinoceros went extinct. But recently, there have been several discoveries of much older human occupation sites, the most famous of which is around thirty thousand years old," senior author Love Dalén, a professor of evolutionary genetics at the Center for Paleogenetics, said in a press release.

"This paper shows that woolly rhino coexisted with people for millennia without any significant impact on their population," Grant Zazula, a paleontologist for Canada's Yukon territory and Simon Fraser University who was not involved in the research, told Smithsonian Magazine. "Then all of a sudden the climate changed and they went extinct."

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The environmental disaster that Mauritius is facing is starting to appear as its pristine waters turn black, its fish wash up dead, and its sea birds are unable to take flight, as they are limp under the weight of the fuel covering them. For all the damage to the centuries-old coral that surrounds the tiny island nation in the Indian Ocean, scientists are realizing that the damage could have been much worse and there are broad lessons for the shipping industry, according to Al Jazeera.

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Transitioning to renewable energy can help reduce global warming, and Jennie Stephens of Northeastern University says it can also drive social change.

For example, she says that locally owned businesses can lead the local clean energy economy and create new jobs in underserved communities.

"We really need to think about … connecting climate and energy with other issues that people wake up every day really worried about," she says, "whether it be jobs, housing, transportation, health and well-being."

To maximize that potential, she says the energy sector must have more women and people of color in positions of influence. Research shows that leadership in the solar industry, for example, is currently dominated by white men.

"I think that a more inclusive, diverse leadership is essential to be able to effectively make these connections," Stephens says. "Diversity is not just about who people are and their identity, but the ideas and the priorities and the approaches and the lens that they bring to the world."

So she says by elevating diverse voices, organizations can better connect the climate benefits of clean energy with social and economic transformation.

Reposted with permission from Yale Climate Connections.

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Note: This story was originally published on August 6, 2020

If asked to recall a hurricane, odds are you'd immediately invoke memorable names like Sandy, Katrina or Harvey. You'd probably even remember something specific about the impact of the storm. But if asked to recall a heat wave, a vague recollection that it was hot during your last summer vacation may be about as specific as you can get.

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