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Decarbonizing the planet

Investments for the transition of the global energy sector to renewables.

by Nicholas Newman
22 July 2020
6 min read
byNicholas Newman
22 July 2020
6 min read

At this time of global economic disruption, lock-downs and strife caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) published its first Global Renewables Outlook: Energy Outlook 2050. The report focuses on meeting global climate goals while also boosting the global economy. This would create millions of jobs, lifting people out of economic poverty by the year 2050.

One thing is obvious: The world's governments are facing enormous challenges in this health emergency, yet at the same time they are developing plans to boost their economies once this pandemic passes.

About the Global Renewables Outlook Report

According to the IRENA's Director-General Francesco La Camera, the crisis has deeply exposed weaknesses embedded in the current system but presents some hope. "The report shows ways to build more sustainable, fair and resilient economies by aligning short-term recovery efforts with the medium-and long-term objectives of the Paris Agreement and the UN Sustainable Development Agenda."

La Camera also urges governments to speed up development of investment and technology in renewables by including the energy transition process as part of the wider planned economic recovery. Such efforts, he says, can help to achieve a more sustainable, equitable and resilient global economy.

The 300-page report, released in April 2020, explains that moving ahead to full decarbonisation is likely to cost some $130 trillion. It should be noted that such investment could bring in enormous social and economic benefits to the world economy. Furthermore, the authors suggest that implementing the transformation of the energy system could lift global GDP gains above a business-as-usual scenario by some $98 trillion between 2020 and 2050.

Estimates show that such efforts may quadruple the number of people employed in renewable energy to at least 42 million. In addition, it may increase the number of those working in the energy efficiency field to 21 million, and add some 15 million to those involved in system flexibility.

Five pillars that can support the energy transition

The IRENA report provides a fresh perspective of how low carbon or zero emissions targets could be achieved, based on five technology pillars. These five pillars include electrification, increased flexibility of the power system, scaling up of conventional renewable sources, green hydrogen and innovations to carbonise the most difficult sectors of the economy.

With electrification, renewables may increase market share from 26% to at least 85% by 2050. Estimates show an increase in the number of wind and solar projects being built worldwide, such as the planned 10-gigawatt Sun Cable solar project covering 15,000 hectares at Tennant Creek in Australia's Northern Territories.

As for increased flexibility and power systems, this is necessary given the need for local, regional, national and cross-border grades to manage their variability renewable power generation. 


The use of renewables has proven to offer numerous advantages even in areas of the planet that are difficult to reach

Meanwhile, the scaling up of conventional renewable sources can result in an increased number of hydro dams, pumped storage hydro, bio-energy plants, solar thermal and geothermal power plants. Increased reliance on hydro dams is not without its problems, however, due to the increased variability in rainfall throughout the year caused by climate change.

To help ensure green hydrogen production increases from a few mega-tonnes per year to at least 160 mega-tonnes by 2050, a scaling up in the production of renewable sources is needed. In the future, green hydrogen is expected to be used to replace natural gas for heating and cooking, as well as a fuel for cars, trains and ships.

The costs of decarbonisation

The report's authors suggest achieving a low carbon energy systems emission targets would cost some $110 trillion by 2050. However, only an additional $20 trillion would be needed to achieve a fully carbon neutral energy system in the subsequent decade.

The report also explains that the costs involved in implementation would bring massive economic and social benefits when it came to improving people's health and reducing damage to the environment. Case in point: In the report's examination of the socio-economic and energy issues of 10 specific regions, it's estimated that Southeast Asia, Latin America, the European Union and sub-Saharan Africa will derive 70% to 80% of their energy needs from renewable sources by 2050.

Meanwhile, the Outlook forecasts that electrification of end-users of heat and transportation will increase throughout the world, especially in East Asia, North America and most of Europe. This would result in improved economic welfare and net job gains in the energy sector of these regions. The report, however, also forecasts a continued decline in fossil fuel industry jobs.

One thing is clear from the report: It is vital for the world's nations to work together to harmonise their energy and environmental policies to maximise the socio-economic benefits. It also suggests that strong coordination across borders may be necessary to increase the efficient use of resources and ensure the Paris Agreement accords are achieved by 2050.

Commenting on this potential for transformation, Dr. Fatih Birol, executive director of the Internal Energy Association says, "Putting clean energy at the heart of stimulus plans is an excellent strategy for revitalising economies while building a more secure and sustainable energy future."

 

The author: Nicholas Newman

Journalist who regularly writes about agriculture, aerospace, business, energy, engineering, rail, shipping, technology, transport for clients worldwide.