Climate change and the role of renewable energy

22.06.21

The International Energy Agency (IEA) said in a landmark special report released on 18 May 2021 on the Global Energy Sector, that the climate pledges made by governments around the world to date would fall well short of what is required to bring global energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions to net-zero by 2050 even if they were fully achieved. This means that these pledges are insufficient and would not give the world an even chance of limiting the global temperature rise to 1.5 °C. In order to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, in their report the IEA purported that global investment in renewable energy needs to be ramped up significantly; investments in energy should be more than double from $2tn (£1.42tn) a year to $5tn (£3.54tn). The result would be a net benefit to the global economy.

While electricity generation is the single biggest contributor to climate change – responsible for 25% of all greenhouse gas emissions and growing every day[i][1] – it is an even bigger part of the solution. With clean electricity, we will unlock a source of carbon-free energy to help power the sectors of the economy that produce the other 75% of greenhouse gas emissions.

The role of renewable energy solutions in mitigating climate change is proven. In most discussions about climate change, renewable energy often tops the list of changes the world can implement to stave off the worst effects of rising temperatures. This is because renewable energy sources such as solar and wind don’t emit carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. Even when including ‘life cycle’ emissions of clean energy (i.e., the emissions from the stage of a technology’s life – manufacturing, installation, operation, decommissioning), the global warming emissions associated with renewable energy are minimal. But clean energy has more to offer than just being ‘green’.

Improved public health – the air and water pollution emitted by coal and natural gas is linked with numerous serious illnesses. Most of these negative health impacts come from air and water pollution that clean energy technologies simply do not produce. Wind, solar and hydroelectric systems generate electricity with no associated air pollution emissions. In addition, wind and solar energy require essentially no water to operate and thus do not pollute water resources or strain supplies by competing with agriculture, drinking water, or other important water needs.

Public support for renewables – statistics unveiled by the government in the latter half of 2020 showed that 80% of people support the use of renewable energy, while only 3% oppose it, and eight in ten people in September 2020 were either very concerned (38%) or fairly concerned (44%) about climate change. [2] Furthermore, according to a poll by YouGov published in Business Green, when asked to rank the top areas the government should be investing in, the prioritisation of renewable energy was the top choice over any other green industry by five times as many people.[3]

Inexhaustible energy – renewable technologies provide an inexhaustible supply of energy with strong winds, sunny skies, abundant plant matter, heat from earth and fast-moving water providing a vast and constantly replenished supply of energy.

Jobs and other economic benefits – on average, more jobs are created for each unit of electricity generated from renewable sources than from fossil fuels. According to analysis published by UK100, a group of over 100 mayors and local government leaders, the transition to a green economy could create 1.2 million jobs in the manufacturing and construction industry alone, as buildings and homes are made more sustainable and energy efficient.[4]

Cost reduction of renewable technologies– the increasing demand for renewable energy and further technological improvements continue to reduce the costs of solar and wind power, which also boosts the availability of these renewable energy sources in varying weather conditions. If the right policies are put in place, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), the cost of electricity from solar panels and wind power technologies could fall by a minimum of 59% from the 2015 figure by 2025.[5] That is to say that approximately $23 billion could be cut from global energy bills if solar and wind power replaced 500 gigawatts of energy produced by coal-generating plants.[6]

Reliability and resilience – wind and solar energy in particular are less prone to large-scale failure because they are distributed and modular. Distributed systems are spread out over a large geographical area, so a severe weather event in one location will not cut off power to an entire region. Modular systems are composed of numerous individual wind turbines or solar arrays. Even if some of the equipment in the system is damaged, the rest can typically continue to operate.

Although there has been much progress in the use of renewable energy and efficiency, and expanding energy access over the past decade, the world is still not on track to meet international goals established under the Paris Agreement, or international goals for sustainable development. Renewable energy is central to achieving these international goals. As we’ve explored; using renewables brings other advantages and opportunities ranging from environmental to socio-economic.

[1] United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), ‘Greenhouse Gas Emissions’ https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/sources-greenhouse-gas-emissions#t1fn3> 14th April 2021

[2] Renews, https://renews.biz/64396/official-uk-poll-reveals-huge-public-support-for-renewables/ 12th November 2020

[3] Business Green, James Murray,  https://www.businessgreen.com/news/4031463/public-support-renewables-led-recovery-surges-study-highlights-flexible-grid-opportunities 18th May 2021

[4] Figure published in Environment Journal, <https://environmentjournal.online/articles/decarbonising-homes-could-create-1-2m-green-jobs/#:~:text=The%20transition%20to%20net%2Dzero,mayors%20and%20local%20government%20leaders> 15th March 2021

[5] IRENA, <The Power to Change: Solar and Wind Cost Reduction Potential to 2025>

[6] IRENA quoted in Energy Post, Douglas Booth, < https://energypost.eu/5-charts-show-the-rapid-fall-in-costs-of-renewable-energy/> 16th November 2020