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Renewing the future and protecting the climate.

Editor's note: This article is adapted from the Worldwatch Institute report Renewable Revolution: Low-Carbon Energy by 2030 ( Janet Sawin is a World-watch senior fellow and coordinating lead author of the forth coming Special Report on Renewable Energy and Climate Change (IPCC). William Moomaw is professor of international environmental policy at the Fletcher School at Tufts University, founding director of the university's Center for International Environment and Resource Policy, and also a coordinating lead author of the IPCC report.

Humanity stands at a cross-roads. One path leads to a severely deteriorating climate accompanied by major economic costs, while the other can provide energy services to all that are secure, clean, and sustainable. The positive outcome is within reach--if we act now and adopt policies to unleash the full potential of renewable energy resources that cost-effectively displace fossil fuels. Recent advances in technology and policy will allow renewable energy efficiency to meet most global demand for energy efficiency to meet most global demand for energy services while reducing carbon dioxide ([CO.sub.2]) emissions in the next two decades. Renewable energy technologies are rapidly scaling up and, in concert with efficiency gains, can achieve far greater emissions reductions than either could independently.

Annual global emissions must be reduced by 80 percent or more below 2000 levels by 2050 in order to stabilize atmospheric concentrations of [CO.sub.2] at a level that avoids dangerous anthropogenic climate change. This requires compounded annual reductions of 4 percent. However, this goal is not likely to be achieved if our only measure of success is emissions reductions; climate change is fundamentally a development issue, not a pollution problem. Emissions target-setting has failed to achieve needed reductions in energy-related [CO.sub.2] because it treats only symptoms and not underlying causes of climate change.

What is needed is a transformation of the entire global energy system. A combination of political will and the right policies can get the world on track to mitigate climate change in the near term while also meeting universal demand for energy services, including energy access for the world's poorest, thereby boosting the global economy, bolstering energy security, reducing the threat of conflict over energy resources, and improving the natural environment and human health.

Promise and Potential

Between 1990 and 2007, world GDP increased 156 percent while global energy demand rose 39 percent, pushing up global [CO.sub.2] emissions by 38 percent. Were it not for advances in energy efficiency--gains achieved without aggressive policies--the increase in energy use and associated emissions would have been much greater. Even so, more than half of the energy we consume does not provide us with useful services.

The potential to further improve global energy efficiency is enormous. In the United States alone, technologies to recover energy from waste heat, manure, food industry waste, Land-fill gas, and other "waste" resources offer the technical potential to profitably harness almost 100,000 megawatts of electrical capacity--enough to provide about 18 percent of U.S. electricity in 2008--in addition to heat or steam. Energy demand in new and existing buildings could be reduced dramatically in every country. Using passive-solar orientation for heating and daylighting; efficient lighting and appliances; super-insulation and ultra-tight air barriers, doors, and windows; and heat recovery ventilators, the German Passivhaus Institute has built more than 6,000 dwelling units that consume about one-tenth the energy of standard German homes. Improving the efficiency of existing modes of travel, such as automobiles, while reducing the need for travel can drive significant energy savings in the transportation sector.

After efficiency improvements, the other major strategy for lowering heat-trapping emissions is to transition away from fossil fuels, which account for more than 80 percent of global primary energy use. The diverse range of renewable resources and technologies available now can meet the same energy needs that today are supplied mainly by fossil fuels and nuclear power. Once these technologies are in place, the fuel for most of them is forever available and forever free.

In 2007, renewable energy provided more than 18 percent of total final energy supply. While renewables other than hydropower and non-traditional biomass still represent a small fraction of total global energy production, their shares are growing rapidly. The renewable share of global power generation added annually (excluding large hydropower) jumped from 5 percent in 2003 to 23 percent in 2008, and this ratio is significantly greater in many individual countries (see figure below.) The modularity of most renewable technologies allows for rapid installation and scaling up, while technological advances and falling prices have enabled rapid penetration of renewables in a growing number of countries.
Renewable Energy Shares of New Global Power Capacity and Generation,
        RE Power Generation         RE Power Capacity
      Rise as Share of Global  Addition as Share of Global
2003          5%                           8%
2004          6%                          10%
2005          6%                          10%
2006         15%                          19%
2007         16%                          19%
2008         23%                          25%

Note: Table made from line graph.

For more than a decade, wind and solar power, biofuels, and other renewables have undergone double-digit growth rates, and growth of many has accelerated in recent years (see figure opposite.) Between 2004 and 2009, electric power capacity from new renewables (excluding large hydropower) increased by 113 percent, to approximately 340 gigawatts (GW). When large hydro is included, renewables totaled well over 1,200 GW by the end of 2009, roughly one-fourth of global power capacity from all sources. In 2008, for the first time ever, global investment in new renewable power capacity exceeded that for fossil-fueled technologies, by an estimated US$30 billion.

Renewable technologies are already enabling several countries to avoid some [CO.sub.2] emissions. Germany had virtually no renewables industry in the early 1990s. Over the past decade, electricity generation from wind in Germany has increased 10-fold and from solar photovoltaic (PV) more than 100-fold; the contribution of renewables to meeting the nation's energy demand has tripled. Thanks to rapid growth and associated benefits--from new jobs and industries to savings on fuel imports and an improved environment--the German government aims for renewables to generate 30 percent of the country's electricity and 14 per cent of its heat by 2020.

Denmark's economy has grown 75 percent since 1980, while the share of energy from renewables increased from 3 percent to 17 percent by mid-2008. The Danes aim to get nearly 20 percent of their total energy from renewable sources by 2012 and 30 percent by 2020. Sweden has seen

a major shift from fossil fuels to biomass for district heating over the past two decades. China now leads the world in the use of solar water heating, small hydropower, and production of solar cells. The nation has experienced explosive growth in its wind industry, with installed capacity increasing more than 20-fold between 2005 and 2009, and China's wind capacity now significantly exceeds its nuclear capacity. Many countries are learning that, with a clear sense of direction and effective policies, rapid change is possible.


Used in concert, renewable energy and energy efficiency can take us farther than either can alone or if implemented separately. The synergy occurs in four ways:

* Improvements in end use energy efficiency make it possible for the lower energy density (energy output per unit of volume or area) of renewable energy to meet a larger share of total energy demand while also rapidly reducing emissions. The money saved through efficiency improvements can help finance additional efficiency measures and renewable energy generation capacity.

* Wherever renewable technologies displace thermal processes (such as fuel combustion or nuclear power), the result is a major reduction in the amount of primary energy required. Fossil fuel power plants typically release about two-thirds of their input energy as waste heat; more than half of all energy-related [CO.sub.2] comes from waste heat in the power and transport sectors.

* Many renewable technologies are well suited for distributed uses, as they generate fuels, mechanical work, electricity, and heat close to where they are consumed and thus reduce transmission and transportation losses. Again, less primary energy is required to provide the same services.

* Direct use of solar energy does not require any energy conversion technology to provide heating and lighting.

Global energy scenarios offer wide-ranging estimates of how much energy renewable sources can contribute, and how quickly this can happen. Even some of the most aggressive past projections for renewables have failed to match reality. A recent survey of nearly 50 forecasts in Germany, Europe, and the world found that nearly all of them had underestimated the future increase in renewable generation, and some had failed to account for technologies that have become significant players in recent years. In its 2002 World Energy Outlook, the International Energy Agency (IEA) projected that global wind energy capacity would reach 100,000 megawatts by 2020; the wind industry passed this mark in early 2008, approaching 160,000 megawatts by the end of 2009. A May 2010 IEA report projects that 22 percent of global electricity could be provided by solar energy by 2050. Perhaps that projection, too, can be exceeded.

An aggressive potential scenario for 2030, outlined in our report, envisions a transformation in how the world produces and uses energy, relying only on technologies that are commercially available today. It would hold primary energy demand at current levels by electrifying the economy and significantly increasing energy efficiency in all sectors, and would replace coal with renewables, reducing global [CO.sub.2] emissions by 52 percent below 2007 levels (an annual compounded reduction of about 4 percent).

Around the world, such evolutions are already under way. Gussing in Austria, Rizhao in China, the Danish island of Samso, and several other communities--from small villages to larger cities--have begun or achieved renewable energy transformations. Each community has taken its own path, but all have shared a major emphasis on improving energy efficiency in concert with a dramatic ramp-up in renewables.

The Way Forward

For the world to avoid catastrophic climate change and an insecure economic future, this transition must be accelerated, with successes scaled up and strategies shared across national boundaries. Shifting to a sustainable energy system based on efficiency and renewable energy will require replacing a complex, entrenched energy system. It will also require a large dose of political will and strong, sustained policies. Policy choices have been critical--far more important than renewable resource potential--in driving the energy transformations seen to date. Further progress requires that three strategies be pursued concurrently and in concert:

1. Put a price on carbon that increases over time. This can be achieved through a cap-and-trade system or through a "bottom tax" that sets a steadily rising floor under fossil fuel prices. To encourage an effective transition, most of the revenue generated from these policies in the near term can be redirected to help individuals and businesses adjust to higher prices while adopting and advancing the needed technologies.

2. Enact policies that drive the required revolution and overcome institutional and regulatory barriers and path dependencies that favor existing fossil fuel technologies. Aggressive near-and longterm policies and regulations are needed to support sustainable markets and significantly accelerate the transition to an efficient and renewable energy system.

3. Develop a strategy for phasing out existing, inefficient carbon-emitting capital stock (such as old coal-fired power plants, as is being done in China), combined with the elimination of fossil fuel subsidies.

Much of the discussion about potential climate change solutions revolves around the common misconception that development cannot occur without carbon emissions, or that energy services depend upon primary energy and [CO.sub.2] emissions. Thus, industrial countries fear major economic losses associated with reduced consumption of fossil fuels, and developing countries fear that they cannot develop without them.

In fact, continued use of fossil fuels is not essential to ensure economic development. No one gains economically by increasing [CO.sub.2] emissions. Economic and social gains are achieved through the delivery of energy services rather than energy, at all levels of economic development. The amount of energy required to carry out a specific economic activity can vary by a factor of 10 or more from one setting to another, which means that there is enormous potential for reducing the amount of energy input required to deliver energy services (comfort, cooking, light, electronics, mobility, and mechanical work).
Average Annual Growth Rates for Selected Renewables, 2004-09

  Solar PV   Wind power  Solar water/space  Bioethanol  Solar thermal
(grid-tied)                   heat                        electric

   >55%        27%             19%             19%           13%

Note: Table made from bar graph.

The dramatic and rapid changes needed to create this new energy economy appear daunting, but the world underwent an energy revolution of comparable scale (relative to the size of the economy) a century ago. In 1907, only 8 percent of U.S. homes had electricity, and Henry Ford had produced about 3,000 vehicles in his four-year-old factory. Who could have imagined that by the mid-twentieth century, virtually every American home--and millions of others around the world--would have electricity and lighting, that the automobile would redefine American lifestyles, and that the economy would be fundamentally transformed?

We have a once-in-a-century opportunity to transform from an unsustainable economy fueled by poorly distributed fossil fuels to an enduring and secure economy running on renewable energy that lasts forever. The energy choices made by policymakers and negotiators, and those made by all people during the next few years, will determine the energy future of much of the world for decades to come--and the future of the global climate and human civilization for centuries.

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Author:Sawin, Janet L.; Moomaw, William R.
Publication:World Watch
Article Type:Excerpt
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2010
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