Politics not technology: what must change for the world to go 100% renewable by 2050

JP Casey 15 July 2019 (Last Updated June 17th, 2020 16:17)

Researchers from the Energy Watch Group and the Lappeenranta-Lahti University of Technology in Finland have released a report, with the ambitious claim that the world can be entirely reliant on renewable energy sources by 2050, without significant technological advances. JP Casey takes a look at the report, and asks what would need to be done to reach that lofty target.

Politics not technology: what must change for the world to go 100% renewable by 2050
Google makes the largest power purchase agreement in its history. Credit: US Department of Energy

That the world is facing a climate emergency is no longer in doubt. The 20 warmest years in recorded history have occurred in the last 22 years, and global carbon dioxide emissions reached an all-time high of 37.1 billion tonnes in 2018, according to the Global Carbon Project, encouraging environmental groups to urge increasingly drastic, yet increasingly implausible, action to reduce and reverse the trend.

A study published this year from the non-profit Energy Watch Group (EWG) and researchers from Lappeenranta-Lahti University of Technology (LUT) in Finland has concluded that while the world may need dramatic change to avoid a full-scale climate disaster, this change could be more feasible than previously expected. ‘Global energy system based on 100% renewable energy’ is the result of four and a half years of predictive modelling and analysis, and sets out a vision for the world where, by 2050, all human energy needs are met through renewable sources; and critically, all of these renewable techniques currently exist in the world today.

The study doesn’t call for a technological revolution, or insist on sudden social change, but rather a surge in political will, and a desire to change the Earth’s energy habits across all levels of society. While both the technological and political predictions of the report are ambitious, they are certainly not impossible.

Political change, not technological revolution

One of the most striking aspects of the report is that it claims that the changes necessary to deliver a renewables-based future are not technological or industrial, but political and legislative. The report notes that much of the technology required to significantly increase the world’s renewable energy capacity currently exists, the only obstacles are increasing the scale of the solutions, and ensuring governments and decision-makers are engaging with the shift to renewable power.

“To ensure a smooth, fast and cost-effective transition to 100% renewable energy across all sectors, governments need to adopt national legislative acts that will ensure the swift uptake in the development of renewable energy, storage technologies, sector coupling, and smart energy systems,” reads the report. “Frameworks should include favourable investment conditions for all actors, including businesses and communities.”

The report goes on to call for an introduction of taxes on operations producing carbon, methane and radioactive waste, and parallel tariff laws to encourage investments from “decentralised actors”, including smaller companies and communities. This implies that the shift to total reliance on renewable energy will require a similar shift in power in the energy sector. By introducing elements such as tax exemptions for new renewable projects and research grants, governments could empower smaller groups to be more involved in directing the Earth’s energy future.

This political shift is further supported by the report’s focus on Germany and India, as countries where the national government has tried to encourage investment in renewables by introducing tenders for large-scale projects. Instead of delivering more renewable projects, the programmes largely failed due to biased government support for unsustainable bids, and a lack of faith from government decision-makers to back projects with great environmental potential, but fewer immediate financial rewards. The report recommends policies such as feed-in tariffs to encourage a greater diversity of individuals and groups involved in energy generation.

Expanded modelling and encouraging predictions

These recommendations are based on a model developed in 2017 by LUT, which was used to illustrate how the power needs of the energy sector will change over time. This model was expanded for the purposes of the report, however, with the same methodology applied to a number of industry sectors, and data collected from 145 countries split into nine regions, to provide a more holistic prediction of the Earth’s energy future.

This broader view has yielded a more positive outlook for the planet’s future. For instance, the report finds that, when considering the relationship between predicted energy usage and the growth of the entire human population, they are not perfectly inline. So, while the world’s population is expected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050, human electricity consumption per capita will reach just over 4MWh/person, only a marginal increase over the 3MWh/person in 2020.

Another encouraging example is the transport sector. While the global transport sector’s total energy demand is expected to remain relatively consistent, remaining between 30,000TWh per annum and 35,000TWh per annum between 2015 and 2050, the share of energy required by road-based transport is actually set to decrease, from 26,000TWh per annum to just over 15,000 TWh per annum over this period. This fall is also in spite of a significant increase in the number of road passengers in this period, from just over 40 million to 120 million, suggesting that the shifts to renewable energy being made in the transport sector may already be enough to prevent the industry’s collapse.

“With more than 1.2 million electric vehicles sold in 2017 (or 1.5% of the global car market), the penetration of this technology in the transport sector could reach the same level as the [solar photovoltaic] penetration in the power sector in the coming years and possibly evolve even faster,” reads the report.

A key reason for the predicted success of the transport sector in replacing traditional fuels with renewable-based sources is that the economics of the transition add up; as more electric vehicles enter the market, it becomes cheaper and easier to produce and buy new ones, creating a positive cycle where investment encourages future investment.

Financial and environmental benefits

Investment into renewables has been encouraged by the fact that, according to the report, investors are likely to see returns, with a renewable-driven future predicted to be cheaper than the present energy sector, dominated as it is by traditional fuels. The report notes that global energy costs will fall from €54 per MWh in 2015 to €53 per MWh in 2050, and while this is a marginal improvement on the whole, potential savings will be greater in parts of the world with a less developed traditional fuels infrastructure, which will be primarily involved in building new renewable power generation, rather than bolting new technologies onto existing energy infrastructure. The report predicts that the cost of energy production will fall by 34% in South America, and 31% in the Middle East and North Africa.

This transition would see benefits across a number of sectors, with the levelised cost of energy for a fully sustainable global system predicted to fall from €78 per MWh in 2015 to €53 per MWh in 2050, and the total annual energy costs of the transport industry falling from around €2.09tn to €1.90tn over the period.

This transition also has obvious environmental benefits, with the report making a typically ambitious claim that a shift to renewable power sources would eliminate all greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. With energy-related greenhouse gas emissions responsible for almost two-thirds of all harmful emissions in 2015, the researchers estimate that cutting traditional power usage in the energy sector will significantly improve the planet’s environment, with cumulative greenhouse gas emissions reaching just 442Gt of CO₂ equivalent in the three decades between 2018 and 2050.

The report also claims that the world’s “degraded arid lands” have the potential to grow 263 million tons of jatropha plant oil, a form of biofuel that has the potential to offset emissions of up to 15 tonnes of CO₂ .

The researchers are hopeful that by highlighting both sides of the benefits of this renewable transition, the cause will attract support from a greater range of people, from traditional power executives and national governments to renewable start-ups and individual people. The team’s goals are ambitious, but the report demonstrates that they are within the realm of possibility.

“A full energy transition to 100% renewable energy is not only feasible, but also cheaper than the current global energy system,” said Hans-Josef Fell of the EWG in the report’s foreword. “A transition to a global 100% renewable energy system is no longer a matter of technical feasibility or economic viability, but one of political will.”