An innocent observer could be forgiven for thinking that the United Nations climate talks, now hotting up in the Qatar capital of Doha, would be the focus of the international fight to combat global warming. But the innocent observer would be wrong. There is indeed a battle going on, one that will determine the planet's future, but it is not between the negotiators finding new ways to disagree over the implementation of decisions they have already made.
The battle is being waged in energy and finance ministries around the world, and in the boardrooms of energy companies and their bankers. It is the battle between a high-carbon and a low-carbon energy future. And the outcome is unclear.
On the one hand, global investment in renewable technologies, particularly wind and solar, has been racing ahead: for the past three years it has exceeded investment in generation from fossil fuels. Last year, fully 70% of all European power investment was in renewables.
Leading Europe's drive towards decarbonisation is Germany, whose national "energy transition" will reduce emissions by 40% by 2020 and by 80% by 2050 without use of nuclear power – using renewables and energy efficiency alone. Meanwhile, China has become the world's largest producer of both wind and solar power. In California, South Korea and Australia new emissions-trading schemes have recently put a price on carbon.
Yet at the same time the world is also going in the opposite direction. More coal – the dirtiest fossil fuel – was used to produce electricity last year than for 40 years. As the International Energy Agency warned this month, this is driving up global carbon emissions, which rose by an alarming 3% in 2011. Coal burning now represents almost a third of all power generation; it is rising even in Europe, as the economic slump slashes the carbon price. And there is more to come: the World Resources Institute reports that globally no fewer than 1,200 new coal plants are currently proposed, two-thirds of them in India and China. Meanwhile, Canada leads the countries exploiting highly carbon-polluting tar sands, and the oil majors eye up the Arctic for new oil.
A low carbon future is the one we must all fight for