It’s crunch time on climate change. Weeks before the world’s leaders meet in New York City to (hopefully) hash out the framework for an international climate agreement, Earth’s emissions have hit a grim new milestone – but with energy demand set to double by 2030, does a feasible solution exist?
The answer is easy, at least according to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA): Speed up renewable energy technology adoption across the world. The first volume of IRENA’s REthinking Energy report says renewables could double their global share of electricity generation by 2030, cutting emissions to 349 grams per kilowatt-hour (kWh) and carbon intensity 40% compared to 1990.
Compare that pathway to a business-as-usual approach where global emissions would only fall to 498 g/kWh by 2030, pushing atmospheric CO2 levels beyond the 450 parts-per-million (ppm) threshold required to stave off the worst effects of climate change, and the path forward is clear.
Plummeting Costs Make Doubling Renewable Energy Realistic
Doubling renewable energy’s global generation output within just 15 years may sound far-fetched, but it’s more realistic than you may think. IRENA notes the “plummeting” costs of renewable energy as solar and wind technologies in particular have matured and grown more efficient.
Indeed, solar photovoltaic (PV) prices have fallen 80% since 2008 leading to commercial grid parity in Italy, Germany, and Spain, and it may soon reach grid parity in Mexico and France. Onshore wind costs have also fallen 18% since 2009, and nearly 100 countries now have installed wind capacity – no wonder renewables now make up 58% of all new capacity additions worldwide according to IRENA.
Add these developments to the spread of energy storage technologies, and installed capacity of global renewables has grown 85% over the past 10 years, reaching 1,700 gigawatts (GW) or 30% of all installed capacity. Most promising, considering where power demand is growing fastest, renewable capacity additions were higher in developing countries for the first time in 2013 – China renewables alone added 27.4GW new wind and solar, nearly four times Japan, which ranked second overall.
“The good news is that renewable energy provides a viable and affordable solution to address climate change today,” said Adnan Z. Amin, IRENA Director-General. “We need to rethink the mechanisms which have, up to this point, brought renewables into the mainstream and prepare for the next stage of this global transformation.”
Roadmap Toward A Renewable Energy Future
Good thing, then, that REthinking Energy ties to IRENA’s REmap 2030, which outlines a five-step roadmap to scaling up renewable energy while cutting fossil fuel use. The in-depth analysis of 26 countries representing 74% of projected global total final energy consumption makes a compelling case to boost clean energy with just a $315 billion annual price tag – chump change compared to the $544 billion in subsidies fossil fuels received in 2012.
IRENA notes not only the falling costs of renewables as a proof point for what’s possible, but also the rising level of investment from diverse funding sources. Crowdfunding, new financial and investment vehicles, and massive corporate purchases from firms like IKEA and Google all demonstrate an upward trend for renewable funding. IRENA also notes the economic boom created by renewable energy, with 6.5 million green jobs across all technologies in 2013.
The REmap 2030 outlook is even more of a bargain when up to $740 billion in annual health and environmental benefits from reduced emissions are factored in. IRENA cites a recent U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report that fossil fuels cost between $362-887 billion in annual health costs, and a European Union assessment that coal-fired power plant emissions cost up to €42.8 billion in annual health costs.
Decision Time: Renewable Energy or Fossil Fuels?
So as the world’s energy system evolves due to rapid population growth, rising energy demand, and climbing climate change impacts, we’re fast coming to a crossroads. Will we invest in a cleaner future, or lock ourselves into a carbon-intensive world?
“A convergence of social, economic, and environmental forces are transforming the global energy system as we know it,” said Amin. “But if we continue on the path we are currently on and fuel our growing economies with outmoded ways of thinking and acting, we will not be able to avoid the most serious impacts of climate change.”