3 ways decarbonisation could change the world

Decarbonisation of the energy sector will need action on a global scale. A new study sets out just what sort of action could be needed.

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Mitigating climate change is a difficult challenge. But it’s one well within the grasp of governments, companies and individuals around the world if we can start thinking strategically.

On the behalf of the German government, The Internal Energy Agency (IEA) and the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) have jointly published a report outlining the long-term targets of a worldwide decarbonisation process, and how those targets can be achieved through long-term investment and policy strategies.

At the heart of the report is a commitment to the ‘66% two degrees Celsius scenario’, which the report defines as, ‘limiting the rise in global mean temperature to two degrees Celsius by 2100 with a probability of 66%’. This is in line with the Paris Agreement, which agreed on limiting global average temperature increase to below two degrees Celsius.

Here are three of the findings from the report that highlight how decarbonisation could change the world.

The energy landscape will change – and that’s a good thing

Decarbonisation will by definition mean reducing the use of carbon-intensive fossil fuels. Today, 81% of the world’s power is generated by fossil fuels. But by 2050, that will need to come down to 39% to meet the 66% two degrees Celsius scenario, according to the report. But, this doesn’t mean all fossil fuels will be treated equally.

Coal will be the most extensively reduced, while other fossil fuels will be less affected. Oil use in 2050 is expected to stand at 45% of today’s levels, but will likely still feature in the energy landscape due its use in industries like petrochemicals.

Gas will likely also remain a key part of the energy makeup, thanks to its ability to provide auxiliary grid functions like frequency response and black-starting in the event of grid failure.

Renewables like biomass will likely play an increasing role here as well, particularly when combined with carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology.

Overall, renewable energy sources will need to increase substantially. In the report’s global roadmap for the future, renewables make up two thirds of the primary energy supply. Reaching this figure will be no mean feat – it will mean renewable growth rates doubling compared with today.

Everyday electricity use will become more efficient 

The report highlights the need for ‘end-use’ behaviour to change. This can mean everyday energy users choosing to use a bit less heat, power and fuel for transport in our day-to-day activities, but a bigger driver of change will be by investment in better, more efficient end-use technology – the technology, devices and household appliances we use every day.

In fact, the study argues that net investment in energy supply doesn’t need to increase beyond today’s level – what needs to increase is investment in these technologies. For instance, by 2050, 70% of new cars must be electric cars to meet decarbonisation targets.

Infrastructure design could also be improved for energy efficiency – smart grids, battery storage and buildings retrofitted with energy efficient features such as LED lighting will be essential. There’s also the possibility of increased use of cleaner building materials and processes – for example, constructing large scale buildings out of wood rather than carbon-intensive materials such as concrete and steel.

Decarbonisation will cost, but not decarbonising will cost more

The upfront costs of meeting temperature targets will be substantial. A case study used in the report estimates that $119 trillion would need to be spent on low-carbon technologies between 2015 and 2050. But it also suggests another $29 trillion may be needed to meet targets.

However, failure to act could mean the world will pay out an even higher figure in healthcare costs, or in other economic costs associated with climate change, such as flood damage or drought. Therefore, the sum for decarbonisation could end up costing between two and six times less than what failing to decarbonise could cost.

On top of this, the new jobs (including those in renewable fuel industries that will replace those lost in fossil fuels) and opportunities that will be created between 2015 and 2050 could add $19 trillion to the global economy. More than that, global GDP could be increased by 0.8% in 2050, thanks to added stimulus from the low carbon economy.

Achieving a cleaner future won’t be easy – it requires planning, effort, and the will to see beyond short-term goals and think about the long-term benefits. But as the report demonstrates, get it right and the results could be considerable.