This year, we have seen the largest-ever outpouring of reporting and planning for inevitable climate change in the Anthropocene. One of the latest studies, REthinking Energy, draws on worldwide research and financial analysis to form some conclusions about changing our mix of energy, one of the major drivers of the phenomenon, as earth’s population continues to swell.
In this report, the International Renewable Energy Agency, which serves as as the global hub for renewable energy cooperation and information exchange for 133 states (another 34 in accession) and the European Union, finds that our old solutions will likely be insufficient. Accelerating renewable energy implementation—not only for power, but also for end uses like transportation, industrial and building heat—offers the most effective way to reduce carbon emissions and avoid catastrophic climate change.
“A convergence of social, economic, and environmental forces are transforming the global energy system as we know it,” says Adnan Z. Amin, Secretary-General of the intergovernmental agency. With global population projected to top 8 billion by 2030 and energy demand due to rapid economic development set to double, supply must measure up—and without exacerbating the climate stresses we are already beginning to feel.
Fortunately, says the new report from IRENA, renewable energy can become a major force in this transformation. Its deployment is already accelerating rapidly. Just look at the dramatic drop in the costs of photovoltaics: we’ve seen solar prices drop 80 percent over just the past six years, according to the IRENA report. Solar is already at parity in Italy, Germany, and Spain, and it is fast approaching that point in several other nations.
Not only are solar statistics amazing, but nearly 100 countries have installed wind capacity now, and onshore wind power costs have also fallen significantly (18% since 2009). IRENA calculates that renewables now make up 58% of all new power capacity additions worldwide.
Another important driver: individuals, governments, and businesses are all seeking a cleaner, more diverse, and more secure energy mix. Renewable sources (bioenergy, geothermal energy, hydropower, ocean, solar, and wind) are up to 250 times less carbon-intensive than coal and up to 120 times less so than the “cleanest” fossil fuel in terms of CO2, natural gas. Deployment opportunities are also increasing.
IRENA figures we can double the output of renewables (or more) during the next 16 years, all the while cutting emissions to 349 grams per kilowatt-hour and carbon intensity 40%, compared to 1990 figures. The organization’s REmap 2013 report, released this summer, showed that staying on our present course will involve a global emissions change to 498 g/kWh by 2030 and will push atmospheric CO2 levels beyond an already iffy 450 parts-per-million threshold.
When we add energy storage technologies to the improvements in renewables, we find that installed capacity of global renewables has grown 85% over the past 10 years: 1,700 gigawatts, or 30% of all installed capacity. Also, renewable capacity additions in developing countries have outpaced those of the developed sector for the first time (2013).
IRENA finds that financing renewable energy projects is easier and cheaper now than at all earlier points in its development. Differences remain among some variables, and people involved in the renewables sector are working on them:
- Addressing risks to reduce the cost of capital,
- Growing sophistication of financial products,
- Adapting support to changing market conditions, and
- Transforming utility business models.
“If we continue on the path we are currently on and fuel our growing economies with outmoded ways of thinking and acting, we will not be able to avoid the most serious impacts of climate change…. The good news is that renewable energy provides a viable and affordable solution to address climate change today.”