IRENA Study: With Renewables, Global CO2 Can Be Cut 70% by 2050

Global energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions can be reduced by 70 percent by 2050 and can be completely phased-out by 2060 with a net positive economic outlook, according to new findings released on March 20 by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA).

With a mandate from over 170 nations worldwide, and the active engagement of the European Union, IRENA encourages governments to adopt enabling policies for renewable energy investments, provides practical tools and policy advice to accelerate renewable energy deployment; and facilitates knowledge sharing and technology transfer to provide clean, sustainable energy for the world’s growing population.

The new IRENA study, Perspectives for the Energy Transition: Investment Needs for a Low-Carbon Energy Transition,, presents the case that increased deployment of renewable energy and energy efficiency in G20 countries and globally can achieve the emissions reductions needed to keep the increase in the world’s temperature to no more than 2̊̊ Celsius– avoiding the most severe impacts of climate change.

“The Paris Agreement reflected an unprecedented international determination to act on climate. The focus must be on the decarbonization of the global energy system, as it accounts for almost two-thirds of greenhouse gas emissions,” said IRENA Director-General Adnan Z. Amin. “Critically, the economic case for the energy transition has never been stronger. Today around the world, new renewable power plants are being built that will generate electricity for less cost than fossil-fuel power plants. And through 2050, the decarbonization can fuel sustainable economic growth and create more new jobs in renewables.

“We are in a good position to transform the global energy system but success will depend on urgent action, as delays will raise the costs of decarbonization,” added Mr. Amin.

While overall the energy investment needed for decarbonizing the energy sector is substantial – an additional USD 29 trillion through 2050, according to the study – it amounts to a small share (0.4 percent) of global GDP.

Furthermore, IRENA’s macroeconomic analysis suggests that such investment creates a stimulus that, together with other pro-growth policies, will:

  • Boost global GDP by 0.8 percent in 2050;
  • Generate new jobs in the renewable energy sector that would more than offset job losses in the fossil fuel industry, with further jobs being created by energy efficiency activities; and
  • Improve human welfare through important additional environmental and health benefits thanks to reduced air pollution.

Globally, 32 gigatonnes (Gt) of energy-related CO2 were emitted in 2015. The report states that emissions will need to fall continuously to 9.5 Gt by 2050, in order to limit warming to no more than two degrees above pre-industrial temperatures. Fully 90 percent of this energy CO2 emission reduction can be achieved through expanding renewable energy deployment and improving energy efficiency.

Renewable energy now accounts for 24 percent of global power generation and 16 percent of primary energy supply. To achieve decarbonization, the report states that, by 2050, renewables should represent 80 percent of power generation and 65% of total primary energy supply.

The report also describes how the energy sector transition needs to go beyond the power sector into all end-use sectors. Renewables need to account for the majority of power generation in 2050, based on continued rapid growth – especially for solar and wind power, in combination with enabling grids and new operating practices.

But also, the buildings, industry and transport sectors need more bioenergy, solar heating, and electricity from renewable sources that substitute conventional energy:

  • Electric vehicles need to become the predominant car type in 2050.
  • Liquid biofuel production must grow ten-fold.
  • High efficiency all-electric buildings should become the norm.
  • Deployment of heat pumps must accelerate.
  • A combined total of 2 billion buildings will need either to be newly constructed or renovated.

The energy supply mix in 2050 would be significantly different, the study predicts. Total fossil fuel use in 2050 would stand at a third of today’s level. The use of coal would decline the most, while oil demand would be at 45 percent of today’s level. Resources that have high production costs would no longer be exploited.

While natural gas can be a “bridge” to greater use of renewable energy, its role should be limited, IRENA believes, unless it is coupled with high levels of carbon capture and sequestration. There is a risk of path dependency and

future stranded assets if natural gas deployment expands significantly without long-term emissions reduction goals in mind.

Finally, the report calls for policy efforts to create an enabling framework and re-design of energy markets. Stronger price signals and carbon pricing can help provide a level playing field when complemented by other measures, and the report emphasizes the importance of considering needs of those without energy access.

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