Climate Change is not an obscure term anymore. We know it’s happening, and we know our actions are responsible for it. The earth’s atmosphere is warming faster than ever before. Changes in the weather, climate and natural environments are also occurring faster than plants, wildlife or people can adapt to.
Yes, Covid -19 was the 2020s biggest issue, and we’re still not over its impacts. But if things continue as normal, challenges like poverty and wildlife extinction will become more imminent as climate change progresses. 2021 has to be (and is to a certain extent) the year for combating climate change.
The United Nations General Assembly’s (UNGA) sustainable development goals (SDGs) provide a robust framework for international involvement and cooperation to achieve a sustainable future for the planet. The framework provides 169 targets with 17 SDGs – these make up the core of “Agenda 2030.” Sustainable energy is central in making agenda 2030 a success.
SDG-7 is the global goal on energy and includes three main targets:
- To ensure affordable, reliable and universal access to modern energy services
- To increase the share of renewable energy power in the global energy mix, significantly.
- To double the worldwide rate of improvement in energy efficiency
These targets further contribute to the achievement of other SDG goals.
There are various alternative future energy pathways along with technologies, policies and resources that can aid in attaining these targets. A successful transition of energy from fossil fuels to renewables is indeed possible. But, it will require the speedy introduction of policies and global political changes and coordination to incorporate and prioritise climate change policies into local and national policies. Therefore an integrated policy design is necessary to identify cost-effective solutions with multi-objectives.
Likewise, land, energy and water are amongst our more precious resources and are at risk because of climate change. Efficient resource management is another key area that requires global attention, both for mitigation and adaptation purposes. Inconsistent strategies and inefficient use of resources is a consequence of not integrating resource assessment in policy-making. A holistic view of climate changes, land use and water strategies can help remedy these shortcomings.
To maintain and meet the objective of limiting global temperature rise below 2° Celsius, a worldwide energy transition mix is required. Switching to low carbon solutions will level the field as two-thirds of all greenhouse gases emissions are energy-related carbon dioxide. Cue renewable energy. Record new additions of renewable energy capacity have been installed. It is attributed to the rapidly falling costs of solar photovoltaics and wind power and competitiveness. In 2017 alone, a quarter of all electricity worldwide was produced from renewables. This transition needs to speed up. Experience has shown that energy transitions typically take half a century from market uptake to mass market share for the energy transition.
Previous energy transitions were driven by technological change, economics, and access to resources. Therefore business opportunities, energy transition benefits or self-determination of individuals can catapult this energy transition and bring an essential change.
Sustainable energy is a decisive factor in tackling climate change. It represents a secure, reliable, feasible and instantly deployable route to a low-carbon future and can achieve over 90% of the energy-related CO2 emission reductions required to meet climate goals.
To combat the worst impacts of global warming, we need 85% (two thirds) of global power to be generated from renewable resources (not just solar and wind but geothermal, hydro, bioenergy and tidal technology) by 2050. This climate mitigation strategy will also deliver long term social and economic benefits.
According to IRENA’s Global Energy Transformation: A Roadmap to 2050 report, the energy transition to renewables would boost GDP by 1% globally by 2050 and create millions of new jobs. Despite Covid, last year, the renewable energy sector created half a million job opportunities, totalling 10.3 million.
The energy transition is slowly gaining momentum in the electricity sector. Currently, renewable energy meets one-fourth of the global electricity demand. The world installed 167 GW of renewable energy capacity in 2017 alone, setting a new record capacity. The falling costs are a huge push in getting the ball rolling for renewable deployment for energy production. 2017’s Renewable Power Generation Costs report by IRENA estimated that by 2020 renewables will be cost-competitive with fossil fuels globally and be cheaper. These falling costs have involved corporate players as well. Companies in 75 countries sourced 465 terawatts (TW) (this is France’s entire electricity demand!) of renewable energy in 2017. In addition, 200 companies sourced their energy needs from renewables.
For instance, The UK reduced its coal dependence by 40% in 2012 to 6.3% from October 2017 to September 2018 – this was a result of its renewable energy adoption. Likewise, half of Europe’s wind capacity growth was due to the UK. Moreover, in June, the European Union amplified its renewable energy targets to 32% (from 27%) by 2030.
2017, China added a world record of 53 GW of Solar Photovoltaic (PV) capacity. Last year Russia conducted its largest renewable energy auction awarding contracts worth 2.2GW. Likewise, the Middle East made great headway in renewable deployment. Morocco is working on turning its desert into a resource capable of generating 510 MW of Solar power from its new plant at Ouarzazate. The UAE aims to cut out its CO2 emissions by 70% by 2050 alongside generating 44% of its power from renewables.
These statistics show that by utilising available solutions, we can systematically transform towards a digitalised and decarbonised energy paradigm.
So what currently stands in the way of achieving zero-carbon electricity generation? According to Bill Gates, there are two main challenges we need to solve:
- We need to harness more power, sun and wind both. It is somewhat achievable now due to the drop in prices of solar panels and turbines. Deploying renewables is now far more affordable than it was five years ago.
- We need breakthroughs in technologies that will make a clean energy supply to the power grid regardless of non-windy or cloudy weather and at night time. We need to build upon more clean energy sources as a backstop.
What we need to work on in the following years, is to create a diverse yet flexible mix of energy solutions, to support a future of renewable energy generation. Existing solutions require innovation to make the transition to low-cost, carbon-free power.
Viable Solutions That Can Be Innovative
- Improved Energy Storage System
The sun and the wind are infinite energy sources. Finding ways to store that energy to use when the sun sets or the winds stop blowing is a challenge. While lithium-ion batteries do store energy, they are not as reliable. We need storage sources that store energy for days, weeks or months and take into consideration seasonal changes (such as shorter sunlight hours in winter). Likewise, periods of cloud cover or no wind need to be factored in as well.
- Nuclear Energy and Carbon Capture and Storage Technology
Recent research by MIT shows that supporting renewable energy with a mix of clean energy solutions (like nuclear and CCS) make it 62% cheaper than using renewables alone. Nuclear power is a carbon-free source and produces 10% of the world’s power. But due to its high cost, growth in nuclear power is slow. The need of the hour requires innovation – a new way to generate nuclear energy at lower cost and less waste. There have been various breakthroughs in the UK and USA, but these innovations require government funding, research and commitment for a future for nuclear energy. Similarly, carbon capture, utilisation and storage, separate and permanently store CO2 pollution from energy plants to keep it from entering the atmosphere. This technology is all beneficial in areas that lack renewable energy potential.
- Long Distance, High Voltage Transmission Lines
Solar and wind power sources are usually located away from cities or near industrial areas with high demand. Connecting these supply sources with demands requires transmission lines that can handle large amounts of power over long distances. High Voltage Direct Current (HVDC) transmission technology will allow us to integrate renewable energy into our world’s power supply. But the expansion of HVDC lines will require new investments in power grids, infrastructure and supportive local and national policies. Work on this is currently ongoing at the U.S Department of Energy national laboratories like the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
To be pragmatic, the only viable path to protecting the climate is to change electricity production on a global scale. The UK contributed 52% of CO2 emissions in 2018. But now things are changing. Renewable energy is finally having its moment of glory in the sun. The deployment of renewables has gained momentum on a global scale and is a means to an end to minimise carbon pollution and lower environmental impact. It is also a multi-functional key to a climate-safe world. By creating new job opportunities, it stimulates economic growth alongside giving rise to cleaner environments.
Renewables are an opportunity to dial up on investments in low carbon technologies and shift the global development paradigm to prosperity. We as a planet need to make bold decisions now to secure a sustainable energy future for coming generations.