The world is teetering on the brink of a clean energy sea change. The environmental righting of the global ship is motivated by a combination of factors including: growing acceptance of the reality of catastrophic warming; consumer adoption of clean energy options; incorporation of environmentally sustainable practices by industry; and, recombinant investing by the public and private sectors, e.g., through the Clean Energy Investment Initiative and green bonds. Virtually every nation on the planet—even the traditionally most reluctant regimes like Russia, China and India—has signed on to the Paris climate accords (COP21).
The Good News
Although not there yet, there is growing body of hard evidence to suggest that the dawn of an environmentally sustainable future has finally begun to break. Good news is not hard to find; below are just a few examples of the impressive progress made by the sustainable energy/environment movement and the promise of a greener future:
- Cheaper coal and natural gas will not derail the transformation and decarbonization of the world’s power systems. By 2040, zero-emission energy sources will make up 60 percent of installed capacity. (Bloomberg)
- Wind and solar will account for 64 percent of the 8.6 TW of new power generating capacity added worldwide over the next 25 years, totaling $6.7 trillion in investments.
- In the U.S., renewable energy investment (dominated largely by solar power) increased by 19 percent to US $44.1 billion, the country’s largest increase in dollar terms since 2011. (REN21)
- Renewables in the U.S. will attract the bulk of U.S. energy investments over the next 25 years reaching 50 percent of the power fleet in 2040 from less than a 20 percent today. (Bloomberg)
- New global investment in renewable power and fuels rose by 5 percent over 2014 to a record $285.9 billion in 2015 (not including hydropower projects >50 MWi ), exceeding the previous record of $278.5 billion in 2011. (REN21)
- Carbon reduction commitments by 300 of the world’s largest companies currently amount to 3.7 billion metric tons of CO2 equivalent a year. This represents over 60 percent of the total emissions cuts (6 billion metric tons by 2030) pledged by all countries in the Paris Climate Agreement—equal to shuttering almost 75 percent of the world’s total coal plants. (The CDP)
- It was recently announced that a new Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy had been signed by more than 7,100 from 119 countries. (CDP)
- Electric vehicles will represent 35 percent of new light-duty vehicle sales in 2040, some 90 times the 2015 figure. (Bloomberg)
- Solar and wind become the cheapest ways of producing electricity in many countries during the 2020s and in most of the world in the 2030s. Onshore wind costs fall by 41 percent and solar PV costs fall by 60 percent by 2040. (Bloomberg)
- The rise of EVs will lower the cost of lithium-ion batteries, boosting power storage opportunities that will help balance renewables.
The Not So Good News
The news is not all positive by any means. The biggest concern is the adequacy of the carbon targets embodied in COP21. Even under optimistic scenarios greenhouse-gas emissions are likely to push Earth past the warming threshold considered safe before 2050—a full half century before anticipated prior to the Paris meeting in December 2015. On the current course, global warming of 4 degrees Celsius is likely by the year 2100. The current 2°C target is also being questioned, as many consider 1.5°C as the best line of defense.
According to Joeri Rogelj, a climate modeler at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, “even if every oil, gas or coal-burning engine in the world were switched off tomorrow, lingering molecules of carbon pollution in the atmosphere would continue pushing temperatures up.” If true, this will require a radical ramping up of current pledges and the pace of development of sequestration technology.
Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment lists the essential steps for getting on a safer trajectory: more aggressive emissions reduction plans; increasing investment and innovation in clean energy and land use; creating a mechanism in the Paris agreement that will enable participating countries to review their efforts and create better targets post-2030; and building strong foundations at home for a decarbonized society.
Concern about the inadequacy of current efforts to prevent the global crossing of the 2-degree Celsius threshold is based upon such circumstances as:
- Wind and solar providing only a little over 5 percent of U.S. electricity last year.
- The decline of renewable energy investments in developed countries by 8 percent in 2015, to $130 billion. The most significant decrease being seen in Europe (down 21 percent to $48.8 billion).
- Coal generation increasing 7 percent globally due to rapid growth in emerging Asian and African markets.
- The need for $5.3 trillion more than the forecasted $9.2 trillion investment in zero-carbon power by 2040 to prevent power-sector emissions rising above the IPCC’s ‘safe’ limit of 450 parts per million.
- Public investments in clean energy companies being down 27 percent in 2015 from 2014 levels.
- Venture capital and private equity investments of less than half of the 2008 level of $12.2 billion.
- A recent report suggesting approval of the currently proposed 19 natural gas pipelines will cause the U.S. to miss its emission reduction targets under the Paris agreement. (Reuters, July 22, 2016)
- Government and corporate research/development spending being up just 1 percent over 2014 levels.
This is the new business as usual scenario. A scenario trending more positive than negative, but inadequate—in an absolute sense—for staying on the right side of the 2°C target.
In addition to the “not good news” above, there are other troubling signs on the horizon, e.g., mounting evidence that the 2°C target is too high and increasing pushback of net metering laws in leading solar states. Hints suggesting greater vigilance at a minimum, but more likely requiring more proactive and preventive actions. In Part II of this series, I focus on some of these troubling factors—mostly political—that should shake any thoughts of complacency.
Read more in this series:
Lead image credit: WeMeanBusiness | Flickr