Renewable Energy: The New Normal of Our Times
June 10th, 2013
MEXICO CITY. Humanity seizes its power through energy. The use of energy represents our ability to make the globe spinning; it’s the lever to transform our future and keep us evolving further as modern society. Without energy, humankind would stale in obscure motionlessness. In the present, wherever we look at, energy is prime driver to our dynamic and continuous evolvement.
Today, the world demands more energy than ever; twenty times more than two hundred years ago . Although the growth in population (about 7 times compared to beginning of 19th century) has been an important driver, global increase in energy demand is significantly related to the increase in consumption of global goods and services.
Nowadays, on a per capita basis, the energy we consume is four times the energy our ancestors used to consume two centuries ago. We consume energy when we demand industrial products; when we require provision of lightning, heating and cooking services for living; and when we burn fuels to transport ourselves and our things all around the globe.
Covering such a huge energy demand, over 514 EJ a year , requires a wide diversity of sources. Throughout history, provision of energy has mostly come from traditional feedstocks (e.g. wood, charcoal and manure) or high carbon content fossil fuels (e.g. oil, gas and coal); by 2012, almost 87% of world primary energy comes from the later.
Two hundred years ago, fossil fuels steered us to industrialization and subsequent development. Today, consequences are evident and they are leading us to an unsustainable future, one where no further equitable development can take place or be in harmony with our natural environment.
Every year we pump over thirty billion tons of carbon-dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels to source energy . Under this emissions trend, by 2035, we could easily be emitting more than 1.8 times the amount of CO2 emitted in 1990 , when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned for the first time about the direct contribution of CO2 to climate change .
Fossil fuels combustion is key responsible for the increase in atmospheric CO2 concentrations since the industrial revolution and prime causer of anthropogenic climate change. Today the world faces a record of atmospheric CO2 concentration of 400 ppm that is unprecedented in human history , one that threatens our future by leading us to a likely increase in global mean temperature of more than 4° C with disastrous economic, social and environmental consequences .
97% of climate scientists agree that climate change is likely related to human activities , and most prominent scientific organizations have issued public statements endorsing this position . Beyond that, there is increasing strong evidence linking specific extreme weather events ( an increase in their numbers and intensity) to the anthropogenic influence on climate .
Undoubtedly, the 21st century society lives the greatest climate paradox . On the one hand, we are confident that climate change is real and that the way our current global energy system is operating majorly contributes to increasing its likelihood and worsening. On the other hand, great clean energy source potentials and already existing cost-effective clean technologies that can lower global carbon foot print and help mitigating dangerous climate change are largely unexploited.
It is clear that we need a global shift in the energy paradigm, and for that we need to update our thinking about renewable energy. Today, we conceive renewable energy as we did 20 years ago; our understanding of renewables is neither in accordance with the reality in energy markets, policies, investments, costs and technologies nor their foreseen futures .
The world has abundant renewable energy resources. Solar, wind, geothermal, hydro, ocean and bioenergy resources can technically exceed 100 times present global energy consumption . At this potential, delivering 100% renewable energy for the entire world could be done sustainably with long term strategies paired with strong energy efficiency .
Investments in renewables during 2010 – 2012 averaged $US 245 billion annually, almost fourfold the yearly average during 2004-2006 . After a decline in 2011 (-16%), investments are expected not only to reach back 2011 levels but to overcome them. It is estimated that global investments in renewable energy projects will rise to $577 bn by 2030 .
As investments rise in renewables, manufacturing cost decline fast; renewable power generation becomes increasingly competitive year after year. For instance, depending on technology and markets, prices for PV modules have fallen over 60% compared to 2009; wind turbine costs, by around 25% . At current prices for conventional technologies, renewables are the most cost-effective option for off-grid electrification and for centralized grid supply in particular locations .
Many countries (and regions) are already demonstrating success in shifting their energy paradigm. Denmark, Germany, Ireland and Spain as well as Australia (South Australia) and the United States (Colorado and Texas) all have relatively high penetrations of renewable energy at present (from 25 to 40% share in electricity production) and moving forward towards a cleaner energy future . Besides, over sixty countries are planning increasing their share in renewable energy electricity in the next years; South Africa (13% by 2020), México (35% by 2025), the United Kingdom (80% by 2020), New Zealand (90% by 2020) and Costa Rica (100% by 2021) just to mention a few .
Despite the fast growth of renewables in world energy supply, we are still far from reaching that global shift in energy paradigm. In 2012, worldwide upstream oil and gas investments achieved a new historical record by reaching $US 619 billion, $US 350 billion more investments than in renewables in the same year . On top, fiscal support to fossil fuel consumption amounted $523 billion in 2011, 30% higher than 2010 and six times more than subsidies to renewables ; other estimates account for over $1.9 tn a year in global subsidies to fossil fuels when considering externalities .
To overcome the carbon lock-in in which our energy economy has stagnated, financial institutions and governments worldwide need to act immediately in phasing out investments in coal, oil and gas; no more carbon intensive infrastructure can be built and, subsidies to fossil-fuels have to be removed . Additionally, finance, innovation and public policy strategies that promote renewables rapidly large scale deployment have to be set in place worldwide .
It is estimated that, by 2020, investments in renewable energy need to scale up to $510 bn USD2005 per year in order to avoid dangerous climate change . Up scaling renewable energy investments and supply to a great level represents significant challenges. However, as WWF has exposed, doing it is both possible and necessary to achieve sustainability . Renewables, together to energy efficiency, are the needed levers to realize a real energy transition towards a new and sustainable energy paradigm.
We can ensure a clean and healthy future for people and the planet if we seize our power today; if we leave behind that old fossil energy paradigm and we invest money now in clean and renewable energy and energy efficiency. We could get all the energy we need in a sustainable manner if the energy paradigm evolves and renewables are brought into reality; if we make out of them the new normal of our times.
Tabaré A. Currás
Advisor on Energy Economics
WWF-Global Climate and Energy Initiative
Mexico City – MEX
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