Energy [r]evolution: A sustainable world energy outlook

The climate change imperative demands nothing short of an energy revolution. It is economically feasible to cut global CO2 emissions by almost 50% within the next 43 years. And this can be achieved through energy efficiencies and a massive uptake of renewable energy – if the right policy measures are in place. These are the conclusions of a brand new report from Greenpeace and EREC, introduced here by Sven Teske and Oliver Schafer.

Global climate change, the result of a relentless build-up of greenhouse gases in the earth’s atmosphere, is already disrupting ecosystems. It is already causing about 150,000 additional deaths per year. An average global warming of 2°C threatens millions of people with an increased risk of hunger, malaria, flooding and water shortages. If rising temperatures are to be kept within acceptable limits then we need to significantly reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. This makes both environmental and economic sense. The main greenhouse gas is carbon dioxide (CO2) produced by using fossil fuels for energy and transport.

A concentrating solar thermal installation in Tamil Nadu, India greenpeace/john novis

Spurred by recent large increases in the price of oil, the issue of security of supply is now at the top of the energy policy agenda. One reason for these price increases is the fact that supplies of all fossil fuels – oil, gas and coal – are becoming scarcer and more expensive to produce. The days of ‘cheap oil and gas’ are coming to an end. Uranium, the fuel for nuclear power, is also a finite resource (see box page 58). By contrast, the reserves of renewable energy that are technically accessible globally are large enough to provide about six times more power than the world currently consumes ­- forever.

Renewable energy technologies vary widely in their technical and economic maturity, but their common feature is that they produce little or no greenhouse gas, and rely on virtually inexhaustible natural sources for their ‘fuel’. Some of these technologies are already competitive. Their economics will further improve as they develop technically, as the price of fossil fuels continues to rise and as their saving of carbon dioxide emissions is given a monetary value.

A wide range of renewable energy sources will be needed to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. A parabolic trough plant robert visser/greenpeace


Photovoltaic panels with a wind turbine in the background bernhard nimtsch/greenpeace


Geothermal power plant greenpeace/nick cobbing

Today, renewable energy sources account for 13% of the world’s primary energy demand. Biomass, which is mainly used for heating, is the largest renewable source. The share of renewable energy in electricity generation is 18%, whilst the contribution of renewables to heat supply is around 26%. About 80% of primary energy supply still comes from fossil fuels, and the remaining 7% from nuclear power.

The solution to our future energy needs lies in greater use of renewable energy sources, for both heat and power. Nuclear power is not the solution as it poses multiple threats to people and the environment. These include the risks and environmental damage from uranium mining, processing and transport, the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation, the unsolved problem of nuclear waste and the potential hazard of a serious accident. The nuclear option is therefore eliminated in this analysis.

The time is right, within the next decade, to make substantial structural changes in the energy and power sector. Many power plants in industrialized countries, such as the USA, Japan and the European Union, are nearing retirement; more than half of all operating power plants are over 20 years old. At the same time developing countries, such as China, India and Brazil, are looking to satisfy the growing energy demand created by their expanding economies. Within the next ten years, the power sector will decide how this new demand will be met, either by fossil and nuclear fuels or by the efficient use of renewable energy. The energy [r]evolution scenario is based on a new political framework in favour of renewable energy and cogeneration combined with energy efficiency. To make this happen, both renewable energy and cogeneration – on a large scale and through decentralized, smaller units – have to grow faster than overall global energy demand. Both approaches must replace old generation and deliver the additional energy required in the developing world.

At the same time there is enormous potential for reducing our consumption of energy, while providing the same level of energy ‘services’. A series of energy efficiency measures can together substantially reduce demand in industry, homes, business and services.

The energy [r]evolution

As stated, the climate change imperative demands nothing short of an energy revolution. At the core of this revolution will be a change in the way that energy is produced, distributed and consumed. The five key principles behind this shift will be to:

  • implement renewable solutions, especially through decentralized energy systems
  • respect the natural limits of the environment
  • phase out dirty, unsustainable energy sources
  • create greater equity in the use of resources
  • decouple economic growth from the consumption of fossil fuels.

Decentralized energy systems, where power and heat are produced close to the point of final use, avoid the current waste of energy during conversion and distribution. They will be central to the energy [r]evolution – as will the need to provide electricity to the two billion people around the world to whom access is presently denied.

The energy [r]evolution scenario and objectives

The report outlines two scenarios up to 2050 .The reference scenario is based on the business as usual scenario published by the International Energy Agency in World Energy Outlook 2004, extrapolated forward from 2030 (Figure 1). Compared with the 2004 IEA projections, the new World Energy Outlook 2006 assumes a slightly higher average annual growth rate of world GDP of 3.4%, instead of 3.2%, for the 2004-2030 time horizon. At the same time, WEO 2006 expects final energy consumption in 2030 to be 4% higher than in WEO 2004. A sensitivity analysis on the impact of economic growth on energy demand under the energy [r]evolution scenario shows that an increase of average world GDP of 0.1% (over the period 2003-2050) leads to an increase in final energy demand of about 0.2%.

Figure 1. Development of primary energy consumption under the reference scenario

The energy [r]evolution scenario has a target for the reduction of worldwide emissions by 50% below 1990 levels by 2050, with per capita energy-related carbon dioxide emissions reduced to less than 1.3 tonnes per year in order for the increase in global temperature to remain under +2°C. A second objective is to show that this is possible even with the global phasing out of nuclear energy. To achieve these targets, the scenario is characterized by significant efforts to fully exploit the large potential for energy efficiency. At the same time, cost-effective renewable energy sources are accessed for both heat and electricity generation, as well as the production of biofuels.

Energy [r]evolution pathway

The energy [r]evolution scenario describes a development pathway which transforms the present situation into a sustainable energy supply:

  • Exploitation of the large energy efficiency potential will reduce primary energy demand from the current 435,000 PJ (Peta Joules) per year to 422,000 PJ/year by 2050. Under the reference scenario there would be an increase to 810,000 PJ/year. This dramatic reduction is a crucial prerequisite for achieving a significant share of renewable energy sources, compensating for the phasing out of nuclear energy and reducing the consumption of fossil fuels.
  • The increased use of combined heat and power generation (CHP) also improves the supply system’s energy conversion efficiency, increasingly using natural gas and biomass. In the long term, decreasing demand for heat and the large potential for producing heat directly from renewable energy sources limits the further expansion of CHP.
  • In the heat supply sector, the contribution of renewables will increase to 65% by 2050. Fossil fuels will be increasingly replaced by more efficient modern technologies, in particular biomass, solar collectors and geothermal.
  • Before biofuels can play a substantial role in the transport sector, the existing large efficiency potentials have to be exploited. In this study, biomass is primarily committed to stationary applications; the use of biofuels for transport is limited by the availability of sustainably grown biomass.
  • By 2050, half of primary energy demand will be covered by renewable energy sources.
  • To achieve an economically attractive growth of renewable energy sources, a balanced and timely mobilisation of all renewable technologies is of great importance. This depends on technical potentials, actual costs, cost reduction potentials and technological maturity.
  • The electricity sector will be the pioneer of renewable energy utilisation. By 2050, around 70% of electricity will be produced from renewable energy sources, including large hydro. An installed capacity of 7100 GW will produce 21,400 TWh per year of electricity in 2050 – see below.
The global energy [r]evolution scenario – electricity generation

The development of the electricity supply sector is characterized by a dynamically growing renewable energy market and an increasing share of renewable electricity. This will compensate for the phasing out of nuclear energy and reduce the number of fossil fuel-fired power plants required for grid stabilization. By 2050, 70% of the electricity produced worldwide will come from renewable energy sources. ‘New’ renewables – mainly wind, solar thermal power and PV – will contribute 42% of electricity generation (Figure 2). The following strategy paves the way for a future renewable energy supply:

  • The phasing out of nuclear energy and the rising electricity demand will be met initially by bringing into operation new highly efficient gas-fired combined-cycle power plants, plus an increasing capacity of wind turbines and biomass. In the long term, wind will be the most important single source of electricity generation.
  • Solar energy, hydro and biomass will make substantial contributions to electricity generation. In particular, as non-fluctuating renewable energy sources, hydro and solar thermal power, combined with efficient heat storage, are important elements in the overall generation mix.
  • The installed capacity of renewable energy technologies will grow from the current 800 GW to 7100 GW in 2050. Increasing installed renewable capacity by a factor of nine within the next 43 years requires political support and well designed policy instruments, however. There will be a considerable demand for investment in new production capacity over the next 20 years. As investment cycles in the power sector are long, decisions on restructuring the world’s energy supply system need to be taken now.
  • To achieve an economically attractive growth in renewable energy sources, a balanced and timely mobilization of all technologies is of great importance. This mobilization depends on technical potentials, cost reduction and technological maturity. Within this scenario, up to 2020, hydro-power and wind will remain the main contributors to the growing market share. After 2020, the continuing growth of wind will be complemented by electricity from biomass, photovoltaics and solar thermal (CSP) energy.

Figure 2. Development of primary energy consumption under the energy [r]evolution scenario (‘Efficiency’ = reduction compared to the reference scenario)


Development of CO2 emissions

Whilst worldwide CO2 emissions will almost double under the reference scenario by 2050 – far removed from a sustainable development path – under the energy [r]evolution scenario emissions will decrease from 23,000 million tonnes in 2003 to 11,500 million tonnes in 2050 (Figure 3). Annual per capita emissions will drop from 4.0 tonnes to 1.3 tonnes. In the long run, efficiency gains and the increased use of biofuels will even reduce CO2 emissions in the transport sector. With a share of 36% of total CO2 emissions in 2050, the power sector will be overtaken by the transport sector as the largest source of emissions.


Due to the growing demand for power, we are facing a significant increase in society’s expenditure on its electricity supply. Under the reference scenario, the undiminished growth in demand, the increase in fossil fuel prices and the costs of CO2 emissions all result in electricity supply costs rising from today’s $1130 billion per year to more than $4300 billion per year in 2050. The energy [r]evolution scenario not only complies with global CO2 reduction targets but also helps to stabilize energy costs and thus relieve the economic pressure on society. Increasing energy efficiency, and shifting energy supply to renewable energy resources leads to long-term electricity supply costs that are one third lower than in the reference scenario. It becomes obvious that following stringent environmental targets in the energy sector also pay off in economic terms.

Figure 3. Development of CO2 emissions by sector under the energy [r]evolution scenario (‘Efficiency’ = reduction compared to the reference scenario)


To make the energy [r]evolution real and to avoid dangerous climate change, the following steps need to be implemented:

  • the phasing out of all subsidies for fossil fuels and nuclear energy and the internalization of external costs
  • the setting out of legally binding targets for renewable energy
  • the provision of defined and stable returns for investors
  • guaranteed priority access to the grid for renewable generators
  • strict efficiency standards for all energy consuming appliances, buildings and vehicles.
Five key principles

The energy [r]evolution can be achieved by adhering to five key principles:

Implement clean, renewable solutions and decentralize energy systems
There is no energy shortage. All we need to do is use existing technologies to harness energy effectively and efficiently. Renewable energy and energy efficiency measures are ready, viable and increasingly competitive. Wind, solar and other renewable energy technologies have experienced double digit market growth for the past decade.

Just as climate change is real, so is the renewable energy sector. Sustainable decentralized energy systems produce less carbon emissions, are cheaper and involve less dependence on imported fuel. They create more jobs and empower local communities.

Decentralized systems are more secure and more efficient. This is what the energy [r]evolution must aim to create.

Respect natural limits
We must learn to respect natural limits. There is only so much carbon that the atmosphere can absorb. Each year we emit about 23 billion tonnes of CO2; we are literally filling up the sky. Geological resources of coal could provide several hundred years of fuel, but we cannot burn them and keep within safe limits. Oil and coal development must be ended.

To stop the earth’s climate spinning out of control, most of the world’s fossil fuel reserves – coal, oil and gas – must remain in the ground. Our goal is for humans to live within the natural limits of our small planet.

Phase out dirty, unsustainable energy
We need to phase out coal and nuclear power. We cannot continue to build coal plants at a time when emissions pose a real and present danger to both ecosystems and people. And we cannot continue to fuel the myriad nuclear threats by pretending nuclear power can in any way help to combat climate change. There is no role for nuclear power in the energy [r]evolution.

Equity and fairness
As long as there are natural limits, there needs to be a fair distribution of benefits and costs within societies, between nations and between present and future generations. At one extreme, a third of the world’s population has no access to electricity, whilst the most industrialized countries consume much more than their fair share.

The effects of climate change on the poorest communities are exacerbated by massive global energy inequality. If we are to address climate change, one of the principles must be equity and fairness, so that the benefits of energy services – such as light, heat, power and transport – are available for all: north and south, rich and poor. Only in this way can we create true energy security, as well as the conditions for genuine human security.

Decouple growth from fossil fuel use
Starting in the developed countries, economic growth must fully decouple from fossil fuels. It is a fallacy to suggest that economic growth must be predicated on their increased combustion.

  • we need to use the energy we produce much more efficiently, and
  • we need to make the transition to renewable energy – away from fossil fuels – quickly in order to enable clean and sustainable growth.

Sven Teske works on the Renewable Energy Campaign at Greenpeace

Oliver Schäfer is Director of Policy at the European Renewable Energy Council

The full report, energy [r]evolution, has 96 pages and a wealth of tables and graphics supporting the scenario calculations. It has been produced with the support of a team of international partners. The report is available from Greenpeace in several languages. See

Fossil fuel and nuclear reserves

The issue of security of supply is now at the top of the energy policy agenda. Concern is focused both on price security and the security of physical supply. At present, around 80% of global energy demand is met by fossil fuels. As well as addressing the issues of gas and oil reserves, the report airs the issue of uranium reserves.

Uranium, the fuel used in nuclear power plants, is a finite resource whose economically available resource is limited. Its distribution is almost as concentrated as oil, and does not match its regional consumption. Five countries – Canada, Australia, Kazakhstan, Russia and Niger – control three quarters of the world’s supply. As a significant user of uranium, however, Russia’s reserves will be exhausted within ten years. Secondary sources, such as old deposits, currently make up nearly half of worldwide uranium reserves. However, those sources will soon be used up. Mining capacities will have to be nearly doubled in the next few years to meet current needs.

A joint report by the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency and the International Atomic Energy Agency, (Uranium 2003: Resources, Production and Demand) estimates that all existing nuclear power plants will have used up their nuclear fuel, employing current technology, in less than 70 years. In the light of various scenarios for the worldwide development of nuclear power, it is likely that uranium supplies will be exhausted sometime between 2026 and 2070. Assuming a downward trend in the use of nuclear power, realistic estimates indicate that by 2050 supplies will be enough for only a few countries This forecast includes uranium deposits as well as the use of mixed oxide fuel (MOX), a mixture of uranium and plutonium.

Damage limitation

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the United Nations forum for established scientific opinion, the world’s temperature is expected to increase over the next hundred years by up to 5.8°C. This is much faster than anything experienced so far in human history. The goal of climate policy should be to keep the global mean temperature rise to less than 2°C above pre-industrial levels. At 2°C and above, damage to ecosystems and disruption to the climate system increases dramatically. We have very little time within which we can change our energy system to meet these targets. This means that global emissions will have to peak and start to decline by the end of the next decade at the latest.

Scenario principles in a nutshell


  • Smart consumption, generation and distribution
  • Energy production moves closer to the consumer
  • Maximum use of locally available, environmentally friendly fuels
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