Sustainable energy sources will power nearly half the world’s electricity needs by 2050, as wind, solar and battery storage become more affordable, claims a new study by Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF).
The report released Tuesday also states that energy demands will increase by 62% within the same time frame, and investors will have funded $13.3 trillion worth of new power projects. Alternative sources of energy like solar and wind power will dominate at least till 2030.
The findings come as a form of positive reinforcement at the time when leading European firms including Shell, British Petroleum (BP), and Centrica are failing to tackle climate crisis. The European Union, under pressure, pushed on Thursday “to advance work” towards setting a target of zero net emissions by 2050, according to a draft resolution.
BNEF envisions a more ambitious trajectory when it comes to the transition to clean power, than the one laid out by oil giant BP in its 2019 Energy Outlook.
BP foresees renewables generating about 30% of power by 2030, while BNEF has called 41%. However, BP seems to think 50% of the world’s energy demands as being met by renewables by as early as 2040.
A timely report that champions renewables
It has been universally established that a “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented” departure from conventional fossil fuels will have sweeping implications for energy markets as well as climate action.
The renewable energy mini-grids supported by the Smart Power initiative in the Indian states of Jharkhand, Bihar, and Uttar Pradesh, for example, are now powering micro-enterprises and homes in more than 200 villages. Improved energy access has transformed the lives of over 160,000 people, including thousands of small businesses.
Despite arguments that they don’t match up to coal and gas in terms of scalability, wind and solar batteries are equipped to plug the energy needs of the future and enable the power sector to meet its share of emission cuts as required under the Paris climate agreement—at least in the short run.
BNEF thinks that the targets of 2015 Paris Accord are achievable even without additional subsidies for solar and wind.
Since 2010, the cost of wind power has dropped by 49%, and solar has plummeted 85%, according to BNEF. That makes them cheaper than new coal or gas plants in two-thirds of the world. Battery storage costs, meanwhile, have dropped 85% since 2010.
According to BNEF, by 2050, solar and wind will supply almost 50% of the world’s electricity, with hydro, nuclear and other renewable energy resources providing another 21%, whereas coal which generates 37% of the power today will end up accounting for only 12% of the generation in 2050.
Other energy solutions
In the long run, however, nations will need other technologies to make deeper cuts at a reasonable cost, said Matthias Kimmel, the lead analyst on the report. Those other renewables could include geothermal systems, fuel cells, and devices that harvest the potential energy of raindrops, ocean waves, algae, and tides.
But it’s unclear if and when any of them will be economical to deploy on a mass scale.
That said, other low-emission technologies could well be developed between now and 2030. A recent groundbreaking study suggests that even carbon emissions can be converted into usable energy.
By eliminating the carbon dioxide component from fossil fuel emissions, the system developed at South Korea’s Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology can produce hydrogen and electrical energy from spontaneous CO2 dissolution in aqueous solution.
Recent developments in the quest for alternate energy through nuclear fusion have also yielded significant breakthroughs. The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) project is building a prototype fusion reactor, called a tokamak, in southern France that aims to conduct the first test of super-heated plasma by 2025 and generate first full-power fusion by 2035.
While problems like radioactive waste disposal and genetic mutation in fishes is attributed to various nuclear experiments from the 20th century, it remains one of the most viable contenders for boundless, safe, clean and cheap energy.
BNEF forecasts that many nations can cut power-sector emissions through 2030 in line with goals set in Paris to limit the increase in global temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius.
Last year, World Bank said the number of countries with strong policy frameworks for sustainable energy has more than tripled in number—from 17 to 59, since 2010. A large number of the world’s largest energy-consuming countries significantly improved their renewable energy regulations, it noted in a report titled Regulatory Indicators for Sustainable Energy (RISE) 2018.
Europe is taking the lead on the shift to renewables, and these new sources are set to supply 92% of the region’s electricity by 2050. However, leading European corporations that have talked of backing EU emissions target continue to withhold support.
Even the new draft summit conclusion aims to “preserve European competitiveness, be just and socially balanced, take account of member states’ national circumstances and respect their right to decide on their own energy mix,” keeping East European countries in mind since they don’t have the means to shift to green energy yet.
China and India, which are still adding coal plants to their grids, will both get almost two-thirds of their power from mostly solar and wind by then, BNEF claims.
In fact, a report last year corroborated this. In India, the share of renewable energy in the generation mix has increased from 5.6% in FY15 to 7.8% in FY18. Credit rating agency ICRA expects the country to add 10,000 megawatts of renewable energy in fiscal year 2020, and has maintained a stable outlook for the sector.
The US, which remains quite averse to the impact of climate change and oblivious of climate injustice, will generate only 43% of its power from renewables by 2050, according to BNEF.
Last year, Facebook announced that it would power all its operations with 100% renewable energy “by the end of 2020.” It also publicly promised to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 75% over the same timeframe, using 2017 as a base year. In a 2017 report, Greenpeace hailed Apple as “among the most aggressive in the sector in its efforts to power its online platform with renewable energy.”
Silicon Valley tech giants consume extraordinary quantities of electricity to power their global networks of data centres and infrastructure. Thus, their commitment to these targets certainly makes a difference.
The clock is ticking
That said, major polluters have often been found to “greenwash” their plans for the future while remaining opposed to ambitious and tangible climate action. For example, while Big Oil pledges support for climate action, their rigs are still heading out to drill for more oil, their lobbyists undermine climate action, and they refuse to submit timelines to cut emissions and achieve a net zero carbon goal.
Based on a barrage of alarming reports, climate change currently threatens 1 million plant and animal species, Arctic permafrost is melting 70 years ahead of schedule exposing us to ancient diseases, while global warming and economic breakdown are caught in a vicious cycle of cause and effect.
If the world is to completely eliminate greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity sector, technologies including carbon capture and storage, hydrogen power and solar thermal plants will compete to provide about 13,000 terawatt hours of generation by 2050, according to BNEF. That’s equivalent to about half of all electricity produced today.
And even if every nation scrubs emissions from the power sector, there are still ample greenhouse gases from cars, trucks, ships, airplanes, heating systems and agriculture.
With almost five years completed since the United Nations adopted the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), we still face a narrowing window of opportunity to mobilise the disruptive solutions and ambitious partnerships needed to bend the curve and improve the lives of billions within that timeframe, or indeed sooner, Ashvin Dayal writes for World Economic Forum.
In simpler words, we need to stop adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, and only a policy-driven switch to renewables can help achieve it.
Prarthana Mitra is a Staff Writer at Qrius.
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