This article was published in The Beam #9 — Subscribe now for more on the topic.
Interview by The Beam Editor-in-Chief Anne-Sophie Garrigou.
“It’s no longer five minutes to midnight when it comes to climate change, it’s rather five seconds to midnight.” — Prof. Dr. Christian Breyer
Three-and-a-half years ago, the global community broadly celebrated the ‘spirit of Paris’, with the emboldening vision of all countries uniting against a common threat, the climate crisis. Despite a few weaknesses of the landmark agreement and remaining skeptics, for the first time in a while, we could feel great enthusiasm for change.
Today, much of the initial excitement has vanished, as major pollutants have withdrawn from the Paris Agreement or struggle to take on their responsibility, climate skeptic parties are on the rise or in office across the world and the global energy transition seems to be in a slump. The verbal warning shots fired by scientists and NGOs, and most recently by unprecedented climate movements, are spiraling up to a degree that one would think politicians cannot overhear the call for urgency. Or can they?
We’re not doomed. With every new climate movement, new cleantech startup or new scientific publication, our voice gets stronger. A recently released years-long research project simulates a global pathway towards 100% renewables across all energy sectors, bearing a clear and powerful message: a global energy transition, which is at the core of real climate action, is not only technically feasible but also cheaper than our current energy system. The open-access study Global Energy System based on 100% Renewable Energy was published by Berlin-based climate network Energy Watch Group (EWG) and Finnish LUT University.
Scientific coordinator Prof. Dr. Christian Breyer (CB) of LUT and Hans-Josef Fell (HJF), EWG, were the two driving forces behind this mammoth project. We spoke about their motivation, the hardship of environmental research, hopes for the future and reasons to stay optimistic.
Cutting-edge scientific findings can only make a difference if they are able to change people’s perceptions and trigger actions. What influence does your work actually have?
CB: Decision-making processes to initiate societal change requires a solid foundation: science. That being said, it is now more important than ever to advance and communicate research in this field in order to stir the public discussion into the “right” direction, namely real environmental awareness. Our work contributes to building a comprehensive science-based plan of action that is needed to induce an urgently needed paradigm shift towards rapid and effective climate protection.
HJF: … We cannot guarantee for such a shift to happen, but we certainly hope that our insights will be passed on to a wide range of decision-makers who translate words into deeds.
“A complete transition to renewable energy sources saves around 65% of all current greenhouse gas emissions.” — Hans-Josef Fell
What is for you the most interesting fact from your research, something that you wish everybody knew?
HJF: Our research dispels the two most widespread falsehoods associated with renewables: high costs and supply uncertainty. Our newest study shows that a technology-rich energy system based on 100% renewables can supply secure energy at all times of the year in every region of the planet, at a cheaper cost as compared to today’s system.
CB: And this cost decline is possible without relying on high-risk technologies such as nuclear power and fossil carbon capture and sequestration (CCS).
And what lessons are to be drawn, which actions should be taken right now by governments all over the world, to avoid catastrophic climate change?
HJ: A complete transition to renewable energy sources saves around 65% of all current greenhouse gas emissions. 100% renewable energy pathways should, therefore, be at the center of any serious climate protection strategy. But for renewables to be able to thrive, we need to create favorable regulatory environments. Policy measures such as fixed feed-in-tariffs, tax exemptions and upscaled public funding will play a key role in increasing investments in renewable technologies and make them even more competitive. At the same time, we need to divest fossil-fuel assets, reallocate capital, and internalize the negative externalities of carbon-based and nuclear energy sources.
CB: Decision-makers need to become aware of the fact that investments into clean technologies will by far outweigh the direct and indirect costs of continuing with the current system. We calculated that a global 100% renewable power system will create 15 million additional jobs. The transition is absolutely necessary to save our planet and protect our economic welfare.
“Our planet will survive, no matter what happens. The question remains how many animal and plant species will survive the mass extinction caused by humankind.” — Prof. Dr. Christian Breyer
Would you say these ideas are getting picked up? Is the general mindset towards environmental protection changing?
CB: It’s no longer five minutes to midnight when it comes to climate change, it’s rather five seconds to midnight. Especially young people are more than just worried but leaders in politics and economy are failing on a global scale, despite the Paris Agreement. But there are a few individual frontrunners, both in politics and in the business sector, that have implemented serious climate protection strategies such as 100% renewable energy pathways. We see more rays of hope with the global Fridays for Future movement and the wave of solidarity for the young generation taking the streets around the world. This is exactly why we dedicated our most recent study to Greta Thunberg and the entire movement. They give us hope for change. However, hope is not enough, we need substantial actions, now.
HJF: The knowledge of the techno-economic advantages of renewables is gaining ground around the world. At the same time, the fossil-nuclear economic apparatus organizes all forces in order to protect its businesses. All the more important is research which debunks widespread myths surrounding the costs and energy security of renewables. The more our message prevails, the more optimistic we can be for the climate protection of the world.
What are your hopes for the future of our planet?
CB: Our planet will survive, no matter what happens. The question remains how many animal and plant species will survive the mass extinction caused by humankind. Even our civilization and humans as a species may be at risk. It’s not always easy to stay positive.
HJF: But our work shows that we can be if we only take action. We can succeed in averting the catastrophic earth-heating. A rapid transition to 100% renewables is at the core of such a strategy. Costa Rica, California and other states already went ahead with the implementation of relevant laws and set great examples. Yet, many obstacles, especially upheld by the old, fossilized business world, remain and need to be overcome.
What is the most pressing endeavor for you today? Do you have new projects in the pipeline?
HJF: The protection of the world’s climate is our most pressing concern.
CB: … and in order to do real justice to this aspiration, our desired project would be the realization of a 1.0° C scenario until 2100. This scenario would stand for real sustainability. The truth is that even with 1.5°C global warming, glaciers and the ice on Greenland will vanish, thus many coastal cities around the world are most likely doomed already, for instance New York, Shanghai, Amsterdam, Mumbai, Jakarta, Stockholm or Tokyo. The only problem: nobody wants to finance such an “ambitious” scenario. Despite our conviction that it will be technically feasible, economically viable and most importantly, necessary for civilization to survive.
HJF: As a next step, we are now using the big dataset and calculation models we developed, as well as our political experience to provide plans for individual countries to switch to 100% renewable energy. We need political leaders on all levels to assume responsibility and take climate action.
Read the full study here.
A globally recognized expert on energy policy, Hans-Josef Fell has helped to pioneer the ecological movement in Germany since the 1970s. As a Member of the German Bundestag for the Green Party (1998–2013), he co-authored Germany’s Renewable Energy Sources Act, the most instrumental tool for the deployment of renewables, replicated over 100 times worldwide. Since 2014, he has been President of the Energy Watch Group, an international network which analyses global energy developments, commissions independent research on energy and provides advice for governments and parliaments around the world.
Christian Breyer is Professor for Solar Economy at LUT University, Finland. His major expertise is the integrated research of technological and economic characteristics of renewable energy systems specialising in energy system modelling for 100% renewable energy, on a local but also global scale. He worked previously for Reiner Lemoine Institut, Berlin, and Q-Cells (now: Hanwha Q Cells). He is a member of ETIP PV, IEA-PVPS, the scientific committee of the EU PVSEC and IRES, chairman for renewable energy at the Energy Watch Group and reviewer for the IPCC.