TWN Info Service on Climate Change (Jun11/01)
6 June 2011
Third World Network

Carbon-free by 2050?
By Payal Parekh

The Summary for Policy Makers of the long awaited Special Report on Renewables by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was recently released. The scientists analyzed over 160 scenarios to calculate the potential of renewable energy to meet the world's energy needs in 2050. The most optimistic scenario predicts that renewables will constitute 80% of our energy matrix given that certain conditions are met. Renewable energies considered are bioenergy, solar energy, geothermal energy, hydropower energy, ocean energy and wind energy.

Renewables accounted for 12.9% of primary energy supply in 2008, although a vast majority of this was biomass. But this is changing quickly. Despite the global financial crisis, renewable energy capacity grew rapidly in 2009 relative to the cumulative installed capacity from the previous year. For example wind power capacity increased by almost one-third, while solar power capacity increased by over fifty percent. Furthermore the technical potential of renewable energy is not limiting; it exceeds projected future energy demand. Developing countries host over half of current global renewable energy capacity.

Renewable energy technologies are at different stages of maturity and can also have adverse impacts. For example, hydropower is a mature technology with limited capacity to grow in the coming years. Large dams have resulted in the displacement of millions of people across the world and have also irreversibly fragmented over half of the world's rivers. Hydropower clearly reflects the importance of weighing all of the impacts of a renewable energy source.

Other technologies such as using the potential, kinetic, thermal and chemical energy of seawater are at the demonstration and the pilot phase and require additional research and development.

Renewable energy is generally still more expensive than conventional technologies, but under certain circumstances renewable energy is price competitive. Furthermore, if costs related to emission of greenhouse gases during the burning of fossil fuels were internalized, renewable energy technologies would likely be much more competitive than they currently are.

How do we get there?

Given that we are expecting nothing less than a paradigm shift in how we produce energy, it is no surprise that there will be some hurdles to jump over, but they are manageable.

The report estimates that investments in the order of 1.2 - 5.1 trillion USD (2005) are needed in the current decade and 1.4-7.2 trillion USD in the next. While this is no small amount, the annual averages of these investments are smaller than 1% of the world GDP.

Proactive policy measures will be essential to level the playing field between renewable energy and conventional energy sources. Feed-in tariffs, quotas and priority grid access are measures that subsidize renewable energy so that it can compete. As the price of renewables drop, the size of the subsidy also decreases. Fiscal incentives also play an essential role. These include carbon taxes and rebates and grants to end users for choosing renewable energy sources.

Policy measures are more successful if they are paired with substantial public investment in research and development (R&D), as they often also result in investment by the private sector. In effect the public policies and investment create a favorable environment for investment by the private sector, getting more bang for the buck.

Eradicating Energy Poverty

Fortunately the IPCC took on the "double challenge" of simultaneously ensuring that energy is produced without greenhouse gas emissions and that the world's poor have a right to sustainable development. The relationship between the level of poverty and (lack) of access to energy is well established (World Economic and Social Survey, 2009; United Nations). Over two billion people have little or no access to electricity relegating them to a life of poverty. Renewable energy can play an important role in breaking this cycle, since it lends itself well to decentralized energy distribution.

But as the excellent report Promoting Development, Saving the Planet by the United Nations' Department of Economic and Social Affairs (2009) very clearly showed, accessibility is also linked to affordability. Poor people spend a higher percentage of their income on energy. Therefore it is not enough to make renewables more competitive with fossil fuels. The price of renewables must drop significantly in order to become the choice of the poor.

Bioenergy: the complicated renewable

Currently the poor primarily burn firewood for cooking and heating. Unfortunately biomass burning is very inefficient and is a major cause of indoor air pollution in the world's poorest rural households.

Biomass burning is classified as renewable energy because a tree that is cut down and burned for fuel can be replaced by planting a new tree. Yet this practice is one of the leading causes of deforestation and habitat loss for endangered species.

Bioenergy is not limited to the burning of biomass. Some technologies are already available and others are at the development stage. For example, ethanol production from sugar and starch is commercially viable, whereas technologies such as production of fuels from ligno-cellulosis and algae are at the pre-commercial and research and development stage, respectively.

Unfortunately there are a number of potentially adverse environmental and social implications associated with bioenergy. Some studies suggest that the energy inputs to produce bioenergy is larger than the amount of energy produced, meaning that bioenergy does not reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Carrying out a life-cycle analysis of bioenergy requires taking into account carbon stock of land that is cleared for growing bioenergy crops, emissions from fertilizer use and emissions from transport and processing.

The social impact of bioenergy has proved to be even more devastating. Converting land to grow crops for fuel means that less land is available for growing food, resulting in higher food prices. In fact an internal World Bank report from 2008 estimated that bioenergy drove food prices up 75%.


While the results of the report are generally positive and give hope that the pathway toward a low carbon future exists, it is not enough. The IPCC report focused on scenarios that would keep greenhouse gas concentrations at 450 ppm and limit temperature rise to 2 C, rather than the more stringent demand of 350 ppm and 1.5 C from over 100 countries. To reach the more ambitious goal, we need to be carbon free by 2050. To be that ambitious we need rigorous global cooperation that is based on fairness and equity to ensure the types of financing and technology sharing that can mainstream renewable energy.

Other ways of lowering greenhouse gas emissions and simultaneously meeting global demand for energy include energy conservation and efficiency, as well as changes in lifestyle. Other more controversial solutions include fossil fuel switch, nuclear power and carbon capture and storage (CCS). A study recently published by WWF and Ecofys (The Energy Report, 2011) looks at the whole suite of options and the various challenges and choices that society is faced with.

The IPCC reports gets us started in the right direction. Now society must use this adverse situation of meeting people's energy needs in a fair and just way as an opportunity to find new paths forward. The energy revolution has taken off and is gaining speed.

Payal Parekh is a science & policy expert on climate change