At the request of the German government, the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) and the International Energy Agency (IEA) conducted a study to determine whether global economic growth is possible while honoring the pledge made by the world community in Paris to prevent average world temperatures from rising more than 2º Celsius.
The result? The study concludes that energy-related carbon dioxide emissions can be reduced by 70% by the year 2050 and eliminated entirely by 2060 without causing the global economy to shrink.
“The Paris Agreement reflected an unprecedented international determination to act on climate. The focus must be on the decarbonization of the global energy system as it accounts for almost two-thirds of greenhouse gas emissions. Critically, the economic case for the energy transition has never been stronger. Today around the world, new renewable power plants are being built that will generate electricity for less cost than fossil-fuel power plants. And through 2050, the decarbonization can fuel sustainable economic growth and create more new jobs in renewables.” — IRENA Director-General Adnan Z. Amin
The study is entitled “Perspectives for the Energy Transition: Investment Needs for a Low-Carbon Energy Transition.” Its thesis is that increasing the the deployment of renewable energy and energy efficiency globally can achieve the emissions reductions needed to prevent global temperature from rising more than 2º Celsius while permitting the global economy to grow.
Decarbonizing Is Essential
Decarbonizing the generation of electricity is cited as the most important strategy for limiting global warming. Sharp reductions in the cost of solar and wind power are making it more likely that renewables will replace fossil fuel generating plants around the world in the coming decades. As an added benefit, installing all that renewable energy will fuel job creation in world markets. “We are in a good position to transform the global energy system but success will depend on urgent action, as delays will raise the costs of decarbonization,” says Adnan Amin of IRENA.
To meet the climate goals set in the Paris Agreement and keep the global temperature rise to below 2º Celsius, the carbon dioxide emissions of the global economy will need to be reduced by 85% over the next 35 years or an average of 2.6% a year. If that sounds easy, it’s not. That rate of reduction is three times faster than the world has experienced over the past 10 years.
How Do We Get There?
The main question the German government had for the researchers was how to promote investments in low carbon technologies for power generation, transportation, and for heating and cooling commercial buildings without dragging down world economies. Both groups approached the task differently but the results were congruent when it came time to write up the results. They both agree that the world will need to get two thirds of its energy needs from renewable sources by the year 2050 in order to reach the desired goal.
The study also finds that the commercial buildings, industry, and transport sectors need more bio-energy, solar heating, and electricity from renewable sources that substitute for energy from fossil fuels. Electric vehicles will need to be the predominant mode of transportation by 2050. Liquid biofuel production must grow by a factor of ten. High efficiency all-electric buildings should become the norm. Deployment of heat pumps must accelerate and a combined total of 2 billion buildings will need to be built or renovated.
The Challenges Ahead
These are ambitious goals and will require aggressive action by all nations to succeed, including a phase-out of all fossil fuel subsidies and an increase in the cost of carbon emissions to as much as $190 per ton. Wind and solar will need to become the largest source of energy by the year 2030. Energy grids will need to be redesigned to accommodate more locally produced renewable power.
Fossil fuels will not disappear completely, although the burning of coal will need to decline dramatically. Oil will still be needed to meet certain applications, and natural gas will also continue to play a significant role. The difference is that whereas today fossil fuels dominate the energy sector, by 2050 renewables must become the dominant source of energy for humanity.
Without the rapidly falling cost of installing renewable energy systems, the IRENA and IEA vision would be impossible. No amount of haranguing or government mandates will substitute for the market imperatives that are inextricably tied to price signals. The best governments can do is promote policies that encourage investment in low carbon energy systems and get out of the way.
Source: Green Car Congress Photo credit: Kyle Field
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