Here’s how the world can get to 100% renewable energy

The person who most accurately predicted the renewable energy boom says the world can phase out all fossil fuels by the middle of the century.

The scenario outlined in the latest Greenpeace Energy [R]evolution report would mean the world would stay within the IPCC’s 1,000 gigatonne “carbon budget” and prevent the worst catastrophes of climate change from happening.

In full: The Energy Revolution 2015 report 

It envisions global emissions peaking at the end of this decade, a return to 1990 levels in 2030, a 60% reduction by 2040 and near zero emissions in 2050 (discounting non-energy sectors such as steel).

According to lead author Sven Teske, not only is it possible to completely decarbonise the global power sector by 2050, it can be done at no extra expense because of all the fuel cost savings.

Heating is more complicated, but still feasible since there’s a huge number of potential efficiencies. Considerable capital would have to be devoted to developing renewable heating technologies such as enhanced geothermal and solar arrays.

Decarbonising transport is tricky as well, but can largely be achieved by growing and electrifying public transports like trains, as well as encouraging the uptake of ever-improving electric vehicles.

Credit: Greenpeace
Credit: Greenpeace

And with this clean energy global infrastructure in need of constructing, there would be many millions of jobs going — as many as 9.7 million working in solar PV alone in 2030.

This analysis arrives less than three months before the UN is due to meet in Paris to hash out a global agreement on climate change. The report says a strong deal — in which country commitments are reassessed every 5 years — is integral to getting to 100%.

It follows a report released this week by consultancy Demand Energy Equality that details how the UK can get 80% of its energy from renewables by 2030.

What 100% means

There’s a pretty well-known scientific consensus that any more global warming than two degrees celsius will trigger the most extreme consequences of climate change.

To wit, the IPCC has said that any more than 1,000 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide emissions will ensure we cross that threshold.

And according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), should the world continue with “business-as-usual”, it will use up that “carbon budget” by 2040, and annual emissions will increase 56% by the middle of the century.

But the Energy [R]evolution report, which Teske has previously characterised as a “work plan”, has a detailed scenario in which the global energy transition is achieved in the next 35 years.

Credit: Greenpeace
Credit: Greenpeace

Fuel costs saving make all the difference

To get to 100% renewables, naturally we would need a lot more renewables than we have now.

Where currently they provide 21% of the world’s electricity, renewables could produce up to 64% in just 15 years — and way more than that thereafter.

The sector is already trending upwards in a big way, with renewables representing 60% of new power around the world in 2014.

Accusations levelled at reports like this are often cost-centric and, admittedly, the 100% scenario would require an average additional investment in renewables of $1 trillion a year.

But, because renewables don’t require fuel, there also are savings on that front — about $1 trillion a year, in fact.

So while electricity supply costs around the world would likely double by 2050 to $5.35 trillion, they would hit $6.2 trillion under the [R]evolution plan — with that extra trillion offset by fuel cost savings.

And looking beyond 2050, there’s further advantages in the renewables agenda: meeting emissions targets and stabilising energy costs thereafter.

It’s actually fairly straightforward for electricity; about 95% of investment must go towards renewables and cogeneration.

By 2030 the only “fossil fuels as power” spending should be on gas plants set to switch from natural gas to renewable hydrogen in the years following.

Subsidies for fossil fuels, which the International Monetary Fund (IMF) says equal $5.3 trillion a year, should be removed in the next few years, some going instead to support the insurgent renewables economy.

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Credit: Greenpeace

Jobs, jobs, jobs

While the IEA “current policies” scenario says the number of energy jobs will increase until 2020 at which point it’ll fall, the Energy [R]evolution report foresees energy employment steadily rising over the years.

Credit: Greenpeace

The solar sector will lead the way, with the report claiming it will employ 9.7 million people by 2030 — as many as coal does today.

But wind isn’t far behind, with the number of jobs on offer increasing tenfold in the next 15 years — from 700,000 today to 7.8 million. That’s twice as many as oil and gas.

Overall, a 25% increase by 2020 will become 60% in 2025 and reach a monumental 48 million jobs in 2030.

Heating and transport tricky but doable

But in heating and transport, which are harder to decarbonise than electricity, there are a few important steps that must be taken to achieve that 100% renewable.

For the former, it’s a lot about efficiency. In fact, looking more broadly, there are so many potential energy efficiencies that demand in 2050 could be as much as 15% less than it is today.

So with energy efficiency accounting for 33% of heat demand in 2050, the rest is made up of a portfolio of renewable heating (which can do 43% by 2030) and biomass, which represents an enormous majority of the 21% heat renewables currently provide.

The report says $429 billion a year will be required to do all that, plus developing preferable renewable heating options such as solar thermal.

Credit: Greenpeace

And transport is a little more vague. It counts on governments incentivising the use of smaller, more energy efficient vehicles.

Renewables-powered trains and buses should be deployed all over the place — but particularly cities — since there’s potential energy savings of up to 62% on that front.

Couple that with a proper proliferation of hybrid and electric cars, which together could boost the decarbonisation of road transport from practically nothing now to 14% in 2030 to more than half in 2050.

And there you have it — 100% renewables in a generation or so.