As many countries attempt to decarbonize their energy systems to reduce their carbon footprint and combat the inevitable results of climate change, they face enormous challenges in meeting their stated goals that have been set out in the COP 21 Paris 2015 accord. Although initial support for decarbonization efforts saw generous government subsidies, which started mainly in the power generation sector, it was widely expected that these subsidies would gradually decline over the years in the hope that the renewables sector would be able to eventually compete with the hydrocarbons industry. Therefore, to fully establish extensive decarbonization, a fundamental reorientation of the energy supply industry is required.
Increased use of natural gas, considerable penetration of utility-scale renewables into the power sector, together with the widespread application of energy efficiency measures have had a huge impact on the carbonization agenda. According to the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) Energy Efficiency 2017 report, in 2016 alone, the world consumed almost 12 percent less energy due to improved energy efficiency schemes that were taken up by many countries since 2000. The fact that global greenhouse gas emissions have flattened since 2014 is inextricably linked to efficiency improvements and increases in the share of renewables.
As a natural bridge between fossil fuels and renewables, natural gas is considered one of the most viable alternative fuels and has seen increased consumption worldwide. As an obvious way to reduce carbon emissions, the natural gas industry has yielded significant carbon savings. Nonetheless, the benefits of natural gas in combating carbon emissions is now being reassessed with sustainability considerations in mind after 2040 and 2050’s if the world is to achieve a limit in the temperature rise to below 2 degrees Celsius. As a bridge fuel, natural gas has served many countries well in raising air quality. Nonetheless, it is anticipated in the future that it will lose it charm as a bridge fuel due to its high carbon concentrations when compared with other alternative renewable options.
The IEA’s and the International Renewable Energy Agency’s (IRENA) studies on low carbon energy systems published in 2017 suggests that to limit the rise of the global temperature below 2 degrees Celsius, the depth, speed and the scope of the energy transition has to be such that by the year 2050, carbon emissions have to be cut by approximately 70 percent after peaking at their highest level in 2020. To achieve such a level of carbon emission cuts, undoubtedly enormous efforts are needed on many levels starting with stringent guidelines on air pollution, precise rules for energy efficiency mandates, and large-scale energy market reforms supported with the rapid phase-out of hydrocarbon subsidies. Unless these measures are consistently implemented to work harmoniously, such efforts to achieve these high-level targets will either face an uphill battle or be in vain.
The integration of renewables into the grid at an exponential rate around the globe is thanks to the steady decrease in production costs; with large-scale wind and solar farms more promising than ever. Despite the problems delivering electricity to the transmission network, new grid technology innovations look so promising that within the short to medium term these problems are set to dwindle out. A redesign of the electricity market to handle a large share of various renewables is as valuable as investments in transmission. With such new renewable developments, flexibility would be introduced to relieve pressure on carbon emissions.
A low carbon transition requires great improvements in renewable energy flows and material efficiency. In the IEA or IRENA scenarios presented, both agencies predict that a smooth transition towards achieving low carbon energy transition requires at least a yearly growth rate of 2.5 percent up to 2050.
Cumulative global renewable energy investment totaled $2.2 trillion since 2010 and reached $280 billion in 2017. Between 2016 and 2017 alone, thanks to the increased global share of renewable energy, a proportion of electricity generated through biomass, geothermal, wind and small hydro increased globally from 11 percent to 12.1 percent, saving as much as 1.8 gigatonnes in carbon emissions.
Meanwhile, solar power volumes increased to 98 gigawatts in 2017, with additional investments that were equal to all combined gas, nuclear and coal investments. Out of all newly built capacity generation, approximately 40 percent was recorded as solar power, according to data provided by Bloomberg’s Energy Finance news. The main reason for this steep investment boost is due to falling costs, which worked as a catalyst in generating a larger market share.
Fossil fuels may well remain an important energy source in the years ahead, but the concerted efforts and policy actions taken globally in recent years to facilitate energy transition towards a low carbon economy have resulted in huge improvements in the renewables sector. The greater deployment of renewable energy, advances in grid technology and in energy efficiency globally have seen promising results towards achieving the targets set in COP 21. However, while the climate policy agenda may help to achieve climate goals and massive improvements in eliminating air pollution, only through a well-designed policy agenda in parallel with sufficient energy investments will the transition be more affordable and cost effective.
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