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Global | The Atlantic
Why the Energy Transition Will Be So Complicated
To appreciate the complexities of the competing demands between climate action and the continued need for energy, consider the story of an award—one that the recipient very much did not want and, indeed, did not bother to pick up.It began when Innovex Downhole Solutions, a Texas-based company that provides technical services to the oil and gas industry, ordered 400 jackets from North Face with its corporate logo. But the iconic outdoor-clothing company refused to fulfill the order. North Face describes itself as a “politically aware” brand that will not share its logo with companies that are in “tobacco, sex (including gentlemen’s clubs) and pornography.” And as far as North Face is concerned, the oil and gas industry fell into that same category—providing jackets to a company in that industry would go against its values. Such a sale would, it said, be counter to its “goals and commitments surrounding sustainability and environmental protection,” which includes a plan to use increasing amounts of recycled and renewable materials in its garments in future years.But, as it turns out, North Face’s business depends not only on people who like the outdoors, but also on oil and gas: At least 90 percent of the materials in its jackets are made from petrochemicals derived from oil and natural gas. Moreover, many of its jackets and the materials that go into them are made in countries such as China, Vietnam, and Bangladesh, and then shipped to the United States in vessels that are powered by oil. To muddy matters further, not long before North Face rejected the request, its corporate owner had built a new hangar at a Denver airport for its corporate jets, all of which run on jet fuel. To spotlight the obvious contradiction, the Colorado Oil and Gas Association presented its first ever Customer Appreciation Award to North Face for being “an extraordinary oil and gas customer.” That’s the award North Face spurned.[Read: Ultra-fast fashion is eating the world]Different people will draw different conclusions from this episode. Central to the response to climate change is the transition from carbon fuels to renewables and hydrogen, augmented by carbon capture. This was highlighted at the historic COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland, which emphasized the need for urgency and a greater ambition on climate backed by a host of significant initiatives, including on carbon markets, and country pledges of carbon neutrality by 2050 or a decade or two thereafter. The North Face story, however, offers a difficult reminder that the energy transition is a whole lot more complicated than may be recognized.A New Energy CrisisAs if to remind us of the complexities, a most unwelcome guest appeared on the doorstep of the Glasgow conference: an energy crisis that has gripped Europe and Asia. Energy crises traditionally begin with oil, but this recent one has been driven by shortages of coal and liquefied natural gas (LNG). That sent prices spiking, disrupting electricity supplies in China, which then led to the rationing of electricity there, the closing of factories, and further disruptions of the supply chains that send goods to America.In Europe, the energy shortages were made worse by low wind speeds in the North Sea, which for a time drastically reduced the electricity produced by offshore wind turbines for Britain and Northern Europe. Gas, coal, and power prices shot up—as much as seven times in the case of LNG. Factories, unable to afford the suddenly high energy costs, stopped production, among them plants in Britain and Europe making fertilizers needed for next spring’s agricultural season.Trailing the other fuels, oil prices reached the $80 range. With a tightening balance between supply and demand, some were warning that oil could exceed $100 a barrel. Gasoline prices have hit levels in the United States that alarm politicians, who know that such increases are bad for incumbents. That—along with worsening inflation—is why the Biden administration asked Saudi Arabia and Russia to put more oil into the market, so far to no avail. The administration then announced, on the eve of Thanksgiving, the largest-ever release of oil from the U.S. government’s strategic petroleum reserve, in coordination with other countries, to temper prices.Is this energy shock a one-off resulting from a unique conjunction of circumstances? Or is it the first of what will be several crises resulting from straining too hard to bring 2050 carbon-reduction goals rapidly forward—potentially prematurely choking off investment in hydrocarbons, thus triggering future shocks? If it’s a onetime event, then the world will move on in a few months. But if it is followed by further energy shortages, governments could be forced to rethink the timing and approach to their climate goals. The current shock offered just such an example: Although Britain is calling for an end to coal, it was nevertheless forced to restart a mothballed coal-powered plant to help make up for the electricity shortage.[Read: When the climate crisis becomes unignorable]Jean Pisani-Ferry, a French economist and sometime adviser to French President Emmanuel Macron, is among the most prominent voices pointing to the consequences that could result from trying to move too fast. In August, before the current energy crisis began, he warned that going into overdrive on transitioning away from fossil fuels would lead to major economic shocks similar to the oil crises that rocked the global economy in the 1970s. “Policymakers,” he wrote, “should get ready for tough choices.”A Different Energy TransitionThe term energy transition somehow sounds like it is a well-lubricated slide from one reality to another. In fact, it will be far more complex: Throughout history, energy transitions have been difficult, and this one is even more challenging than any previous shift. In my book The New Map, I peg the beginning of the first energy transition to January 1709, when an English metalworker named Abraham Darby figured out that he could make better iron by using coal rather than wood for heat. But that first transition was hardly swift. The 19th century is known as the “century of coal,” but, as the technology scholar Vaclav Smil has noted, not until the beginning of the 20th century did coal actually overtake wood as the world’s No. 1 energy source. Moreover, past energy transitions have also been “energy additions”—one source atop another. Oil, discovered in 1859, did not surpass coal as the world’s primary energy source until the 1960s, yet today the world uses almost three times as much coal as it did in the ’60s.The coming energy transition is meant to be totally different. Rather than an energy addition, it is supposed to be an almost complete switch from the energy basis of today’s $86 trillion world economy, which gets 80 percent of its energy from hydrocarbons. In its place is intended to be a net-carbon-free energy system, albeit one with carbon capture, for what could be a $185 trillion economy in 2050. To do that in less than 30 years—and accomplish much of the change in the next nine—is a very tall order.Here is where the complexities become clear. Beyond outerwear, the degree to which the world depends on oil and gas is often not understood. It’s not just a matter of shifting from gasoline-powered cars to electric ones, which themselves, by the way, are about 20 percent plastic. It’s about shifting away from all the other ways we use plastics and other oil and gas derivatives. Plastics are used in wind towers and solar panels, and oil is necessary to lubricate wind turbines. The casing of your cellphone is plastic, and the frames of your glasses likely are too, as well as many of the tools in a hospital operating room. The air frames of the Boeing 787, Airbus A350, and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jet are all made out of high-strength, petroleum-derived carbon fiber. The number of passenger planes is expected to double in the next two decades. They are also unlikely to fly on batteries.Oil products have been crucial for dealing with the pandemic too, from protective gear for emergency staff to the lipids that are part of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. Have a headache? Acetaminophen—including such brands as Tylenol and Panadol—is a petroleum-derived product. In other words, oil and natural-gas products are deeply embedded throughout modern life.A New “North–South Divide”?There’s another complexity beyond the technical challenge. Call it a new “North–South divide.” The original divide emerged as an economic struggle in the 1970s between the developed countries of the Northern Hemisphere and the developing countries (and former colonies) of the Southern Hemisphere. That was the decade when OPEC burst onto the global scene, with the price of oil very much at the center of the battle. The rancor of that divide was reduced over time with the advance of globalization, the rise of emerging markets, and increased economic integration.A different divide is beginning to develop today around differing perspectives on how to tackle climate change. It once again pits the developed world against developing countries, but the contours are different. For the developed world, as Glasgow demonstrated, climate is an overwhelming imperative—often described by political leaders as the “existential” question. While also deeply concerned about climate, developing countries face other existential questions as well. In addition to climate, they struggle with recovering from COVID-19, reducing poverty, promoting economic growth, improving health, and maintaining social stability.For India, it’s a question of “energy transitions”—plural—which reflects the fact that its per capita income is only one-tenth that of the United States. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has announced very ambitious goals for wind, solar, and hydrogen, and has set a net-zero target for 2070. Yet at the same time, it has said it will continue to use hydrocarbons to achieve its immediate priorities. As the government put it in an official report, “Energy is the mainstay of the development process of any country.”“Our energy requirements are vast and robust. Mixing all exploitable energy resources is the only feasible way forward in our context,” Dharmendra Pradhan, until recently the minister of petroleum and natural gas and now the minister of education, told me. “India will pursue the energy transition in our own way.”So while the European Union debates whether natural gas has any appropriate role in its own future energy program, India is building a $60 billion natural-gas infrastructure system to reduce its reliance on coal, thereby reducing stifling pollution for its urban population and bringing down carbon-dioxide emissions. It is also delivering propane to villagers so that they don’t have to cook with wood and waste any longer, and suffer resulting illnesses and premature death from indoor air pollution.A similar point was made by Nigeria’s vice president, Yemi Osinbajo, when I spoke with him this year. “The term energy transition itself is a curious one,” he began. “We sometimes tend to focus on one element of the transition. But in fact, that energy transition itself is multidimensional” and must take “into account the different realities of various economies and accommodat[e] various pathways to net zero.”Osinbajo is particularly worried about European banks and international financial institutions “banning” the financing of hydrocarbon development, especially natural gas, owing to climate concerns. “Limiting the development of gas projects poses big challenges for African nations, while they would make an insignificant dent in global emissions,” he said. Natural gas and natural gas liquids, he continued, are “already replacing the huge amounts of charcoal and kerosene cookstoves that are most widely used for cooking, and thus saving millions of lives otherwise lost to indoor air pollution annually.”Aissatou Sophie Gladima, the energy minister of Senegal, put it more pithily: Restricting lending for oil and gas development, she said, “is like removing the ladder and asking us to jump or fly.”Moreover, a number of energy-producing developing countries depend on exports of oil and gas for their budgets and social spending. It is not obvious what would replace those revenues. In October, a top U.S. government official warned American companies of “regulatory actions” and other potential penalties if they made new investments in African oil and gas resources. Yet there’s no ready alternative for Nigeria, with a population of more than 200 million and a per capita income that’s one-12th of the United States’, and which depends on oil and gas exports for 70 percent of its budget and 40 percent of its GDP.[Read: The energy crunch, in six paragraphs]“Africa did not cause climate change, and its role in emissions is very small,” says Hakeem Belo-Osagie, a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School focusing on the business and economy of Africa. “Covid has wrecked [the] finances of many African countries, and African countries cannot be expected to cut fossil-fuel production, as it is essential to the finances of several African countries.”Will a new North–South divide lead to a fracturing in global policies? For an early indicator, look at what happens in the next two years on global trade. The growth of trade and the opportunities it presented to developing countries have done much to ease the original divide. But signs of the new tensions are certainly there. Europe is moving to establish a “carbon border adjustment mechanism,” which is a complicated name for what is essentially a carbon tariff. It will be assessed according to “carbon intensity”—that is, the amount of carbon expended in making a product. Europe sees these tariffs as a way to ensure that its policies and values on climate change are adopted globally, while providing protection to European industries that face higher costs because of carbon pricing. The EU is starting with tariffs on a limited number of goods but is expected to expand the list. The Biden administration is also mulling carbon tariffs. Yet developing countries regard the moves as discriminatory and an effort to impose Europe’s policies on them.The 2015 Paris climate conference established the “what”—the goal of carbon neutrality. COP26 in Glasgow resulted in major steps forward on the “how”—achieving the goal. But when it comes to the energy transition itself, we may still have much to learn about the complexities that lie ahead.
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theatlantic.com
Beijing Keeps Trying to Rewrite History
Under the relentless crush of Beijing, the courtrooms of Hong Kong have become some of the few venues safe for protest in the city. Defendants accused or convicted of political crimes have turned otherwise banal hearings and bail applications into opportunities to voice dissent and challenge the arduous legal process.In mid-November Lee Cheuk-yan, a veteran prodemocracy figure, used his mitigation hearing, where defendants can address the court in hopes of obtaining a lesser sentence, to deliver a stirring and defiant speech. He recounted his memories of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, exalted Hong Kongers for never forgetting the tragedy, and excoriated city officials for curtailing basic freedoms. Lee, who for decades helped organize the annual vigil held in Hong Kong’s Victoria Park to mourn the crackdown, choked up as he addressed the courtroom.“I want to thank the people of Hong Kong who kept the promise of 1989,” he said. “In the face of suppression, they persisted, honoring the memory of the June Fourth Massacre in Victoria Park with their candlelight. Your Honor, the people of Hong Kong who took part needed no person or organization to incite them. If there was a provocateur, it is the regime that fired at its own people.“For 31 years,” he continued, “our unyielding memory and unrelenting conscience drove us to keep the promise, persist in honoring their memory, demand truth and accountability, and carry on the pursuit of freedom and democracy of the Chinese people.”[Read: Standing up to Beijing, 30 years apart]Yet the unyielding memory of which Lee spoke has come under sustained attack this year, part of a broader effort by Beijing, its loyalists in the city, and an ever-growing list of collaborators to erase Tiananmen from public memory. Weaponizing pandemic protocols and vague threats of possible national-security violations, authorities have canceled the once-annual vigil for the past two years. Prominent activists, Lee included, who took part in prior gatherings have been arrested. A museum dedicated to Tiananmen was abruptly closed. Its contents were hauled away by police as evidence against members of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, which organized the vigil and ran the museum. The group disbanded as a result. Unsatisfied with residents being only physically barred from viewing its displays, Hong Kong officials blocked access to the museum’s website as well. An investigation by Hong Kong Free Press found that dozens of books on the topic of Tiananmen have disappeared from the city’s libraries. One monument that has escaped erasure, just barely and perhaps only briefly, is also the city’s most prominent dedicated to Tiananmen, the Pillar of Shame statue. An orange cenotaph of pained, contorted bodies constructed as a memorial to protesters killed in the massacre, it was put on permanent public display to serve, as its creator, Jen Galschiøt, wrote in 1997, as a test of the authorities’ “guarantees for human rights and freedom of expression in Hong Kong.” The pillar was staged at the University of Hong Kong, the city’s oldest and most prestigious institute of higher learning, in 1998, after being displayed at other campuses.For more than two decades, the city passed Galschiøt’s assessment. Students and activists gathered every spring to ceremonially wash the structure, which across its base reads The old cannot kill the young forever. The ritual was the first in a sequence of events held every year in Hong Kong to mark the anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre culminating with the candlelight vigil. Now, though, the pillar is caught in a sort of purgatory—unwanted by the university, which has tried to remove it but faced fierce resistance, and Galschiøt’s attempts to retrieve it have gone unanswered. The awkward situation is representative of the city itself, not entirely subjugated by Beijing but not as free, open, or vibrant as it once was.“Many things in the past in Hong Kong that were treated as normal and being a kind of symbol that Hong Kong is still enjoying freedom and a high degree of autonomy … are now facing challenges,” Richard Tsoi, the secretary of the now-dissolved alliance, told me.The attempts at removing the horrors of Tiananmen from the popular consciousness follow a full-scale effort to rewrite more recent history in Hong Kong. Officials have consistently attempted to twist the narrative of the city’s protest movement, portraying the demonstrations as organized by a small, violent group, conspicuously omitting the occasions when more than 1 million people marched peacefully. The reasons behind the protests have been obfuscated as well. Blame, officials now say, lies with the United States and astronomical housing prices, not the continued erosion of freedoms and broken promises from Beijing. The police have taken part in some of the most blatant acts of historical revisionism, hoping that residents will forget violent actions they witnessed with their own eyes.“The authorities … are working overtime to teach us what is the official position,” John P. Burns, an emeritus professor at HKU and the former dean of its faculty of social sciences, who has written in support of keeping the statue, told me. “Making Hong Kong more like the rest of China, that is the name of the game.”In 1989, residents of Hong Kong were horrified by Beijing crushing the protests at Tiananmen Square. Hundreds of thousands of people marched in what The New York Times described as a “long ribbon of humanity” that stretched through the city’s streets. The outrage extended beyond those who supported full democracy. Many who signed published petitions denouncing Beijing’s actions and who took part in demonstrations are pro-Beijing stalwarts today. David Ford, then the territory’s chief secretary, wrote in a letter to the city’s vaunted civil service that residents felt a “profound feeling of shock and grief,” at what had occurred. Authorities in Beijing believed then that the city’s protests would be a one-off event, according to a former Hong Kong government official who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic, and that the territory would revert to being a purely “economic city,” whose inhabitants were uninterested in politics. This hypothesis—like many made by Beijing about Hong Kong—was totally incorrect. Instead, Hong Kong fostered a lively tradition of protests and demonstrations.[Read: Remembering Tiananmen Square is dangerous, even in Hong Kong]Galschiøt’s two-ton sculpture was unveiled in downtown Victoria Park eight years after the massacre and 28 days before the city’s July 1, 1997, handover to China. It was eventually relocated to HKU’s campus, and activists painted it bright orange in 2008. The artist wrote at the time of its installation that “no ban on the sculpture can diminish its symbolic value. No attack, not even the destruction of the sculpture can obliterate the symbolism of the Pillar of Shame.” One of his tenets is now being tested: “No authority will ever succeed in preventing the mounting of the Pillar of Shame in Hong Kong.”Following the disbandment of the alliance, HKU tried to have the sculpture removed, enlisting the global law firm Mayer Brown to help. In a statement to news outlets, Lisa Sachdev, a spokesperson for the firm, said that Mayer Brown was “asked to provide a specific service on a real-estate matter for our long-term client, the University of Hong Kong.” She continued: “Our role as outside counsel is to help our clients understand and comply with current law. Our legal advice is not intended as commentary on current or historical events.” (The firm regularly comments on U.S. news events, though, including the death of George Floyd and voting-rights issues, and Mayer Brown later relented after its involvement drew considerable press and condemnation, saying, “Going forward, Mayer Brown will not be representing its long-time client in this matter.”)Galschiøt hired his own lawyers in an effort to reclaim the statue himself. He said in an open letter this month that he would travel to Hong Kong to remove the statue but would need assurances from authorities that he wouldn’t face any legal issues. This seems highly unlikely because Galschiøt has been barred from entering Hong Kong on two previous occasions. He added that HKU has not responded to his inquiries. The university did not address the contents of Galschiøt’s letter and, when asked for comment, said only that it was working to resolve the issue in a “legal and reasonable manner.”HKU and other universities in the territory have quickly moved to submit to Hong Kong’s new, more authoritarian political order. Maintenance workers at the university removed colorful walls of protest art, and the administration cut ties with the students’ union and barred some of its members from campus because of a union motion expressing sympathy for the “sacrifice” of a man who had killed himself after stabbing a police officer in July. The students later apologized and retracted the statement, but four were arrested under the national-security law and charged with advocating terrorism.Burns told me that by moving to remove the sculpture, the university is “acknowledging its dependence on the mainland and on authorities in the mainland for the things the university wants.” One professor, who asked not to be named for fear of repercussions, told me that the threat of removal was part of “a wholesale embrace of the wider crackdown that we have seen in the media, civil society, and the general public,” and that the university was in “free fall into a totalitarian-friendly tertiary institution.” Another professor, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, told me about recently going out of their way to walk by the statue with colleagues to confirm that it was still standing. “I find campus very depressing,” the academic said, “because of everything that is no longer there.”In court, Lee said that even while in jail earlier this year after being convicted for his role in a 2019 protest, he continued to uphold the memory of June Fourth by fasting and, without access to a candle, lighting a single match. “I am proud to be a Hong Konger,” he said. “For 32 years, we have marched together in the fight to bring justice to those who put their lives on the line on 4 June 1989, and in the struggle for democracy.”In the end, he told the judge that he was at peace with any sentence that might be handed down: “If I must go to jail to affirm my will,” he said, “then so be it.”
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theatlantic.com