Clean energy will take off 'too late' if trends continue

Carbon emissions cuts will come too late to avert 'runaway' climate change if current policy trends continue in Europe and across the world according to the EU's World Energy Technology Outlook, published this week.

Renewables like large-scale offshore wind would develop after 2030 - too late to avert runaway climate change

Renewables like large-scale offshore wind would develop after 2030 - too late to avert runaway climate change

The report, which comes days before the publication of the EU's energy policy proposals, looks at the period up to 2050 under three scenarios -

  • business as usual, based on current trends;

  • the "carbon constraint" scenario, designed to stabilise CO2 at 500ppmv by 2050, with stronger climate change policies pushing for renewables and energy efficiency; and

  • the "H2 scenario," which assumes major breakthroughs in hydrogen power.

    'Business as usual' across the world will see global energy use more than double by 2050 - from 10Gtoe (giga-tonne oil equivalent) to 22 Gtoe, with 70% of the increase coming from fossil fuels, the report predicts.

    Even under BAU, energy efficiency will improve substantially - the report forecasts a factor of 2.2 increase in energy use by 2050 to support an economy that is four times as large as today.

    Developing countries will together use more energy than the West shortly after 2010, and by 2030 will be consuming two-thirds of the world total.

    And coal will make a comeback as an important electricity source under the BAU scenario, the Outlook predicts.

    The emissions produced if current trends continue will result in atmospheric CO2 building up to 900-1000ppmv (parts per metre volume) by 2050 - far above the 550ppm recommended by Sir Nicholas Stern as a realistic level to aim for in his review of the economics of climate change, above which the amplitude of climatic changes would carry unacceptable risks (see related story).

    This would happen despite a "massive" growth in renewables after 2030, including rapid deployment of new technologies like offshore wind, according to the EU report - these developments would be coming too late.

    In Europe, business as usual will see lower growth in energy use between now and 2020 than in the rest of the world, but renewables will only really take off after 2020. Emissions will remain almost stable up to 2030 and the EU will continue to emit greenhouse gases at current rates for the next 14 years under current trends. This is despite European policies achieving an energy market that is 70% decarbonised by 2050.

    Stronger climate policies under the 'carbon constraint' scenario, aimed at stabilising emissions at 500ppmv would still leave global CO2 emissions stable between 2015 and 2030, only starting to decrease post-2030 when serious carbon-cut measures reach the developing world.

    If policies to constrain carbon emissions are strengthened substantially, renewables and nuclear will provide more than 20% of total global demand each by 2050 while Europe produces three-quarters of its power from nuclear and renewable sources.

    Technology breakthroughs in hydrogen power production under the hydrogen scenario bring costs down dramatically, leading to a tenfold increase in hydrogen production in 2030-50 and a 13% share in total energy production for the technology by 2050.

    The complete World Energy Technology Outlook can be accessed

    Goska Romanowicz

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