The Renewable Future

NAIROBI – Renewable energy triggers sharply polarized views. For some, it is a costly white elephant; for others, it is humanity’s savior, promising to emancipate us (and our environment) from the “folly” of fossil fuels. So a hardheaded, credible, and, above all, impartial analysis, which would provide a much-needed dose of pragmatism and realism to the debate, is long overdue.

The new report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), involving more than 120 scientists, economists, and technology specialists, provides that long-overdue assessment. It adopts a global perspective and reconciles developed and developing countries’ interests, while weighing the broader economic, environmental, and social issues at stake.

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The summary, signed by representatives of the more than 190 countries meeting this week in the United Arab Emirates, concludes that renewable energy is an increasingly practical and highly promising option. Costs are falling – and are likely to fall even further as innovation accelerates and global energy demand continues to rise.

The researchers have painstakingly sifted more than 160 scenarios, including in-depth examinations of four. The most optimistic of these predicts that renewables could account for close to 80% of total energy supply by mid-century, thereby cutting greenhouse-gas emissions by around one-third.

Of course, only time will tell whether or not this figure will be reached. Some of the six renewable-energy technologies evaluated, such as those that generate electricity from the oceans, will require more research, development, and incubation before they reach commercial maturity. But others, such as wind, solar, and geothermal, are in some circumstances already cost competitive – or nearly cost competitive – with fossil fuels.

The IPCC report also underscores what some development experts and economists have been saying for years: energy choices should take into account wider benefits. Renewables cut air pollution, which is costing the global economy billions of dollars a year in health-care costs alone. Photovoltaics can be rapidly deployed in rural areas without the need for installing an expensive grid system – Bangladesh is a pioneering case in point. And we are only just coming to grips with the cooling costs of thermal power plants in terms of finite water resources – let alone the future price of unchecked climate change.

The ball is now firmly in politicians’ court. The IPCC assessment points out that renewables are already growing. In 2009, installed capacity of wind and PVs increased by more than 30% and 50%, respectively. But the really big numbers are unlikely to be reached without the kinds of supportive public policies that have catalyzed the expansion of renewables in countries such as China and Germany.

Smart and forward-looking national policies are imperative. Kenya’s new feed-in tariff has triggered a rapid expansion of geothermal capacity, and, at 300MW, the largest wind-farm project in sub-Saharan Africa.

But diverse national policies can achieve only so much. International policies, including the lending decisions of the World Bank and regional development banks, must evolve, as do the strategies of the UN and bilateral donors.

The importance of moving forward to a new global climate agreement in Durban, South Africa, this year cannot be underestimated. A comprehensive agreement would bring certainty to the carbon markets and strengthen the various mechanisms that are already encouraging renewables in developing economies and pump-priming private-sector investments. The Rio+20 meeting in Brazil next year is another opportunity to spark the transition to a global green economy.

Technical challenges remain: seamlessly managing an array of very different energy sources will require investment in better national and regional grids. Yet the opportunities – to keep the global temperature rise this century to under two degrees Celsius, and to generate decent employment in clean-tech industries for millions of people – far outweigh the challenges. Clean and renewable energy will be an indispensable component of the fight against poverty worldwide.

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The IPCC estimates that the costs of triggering a renewable revolution could range from $3 trillion to more than $12 trillion between now and 2030. That sounds pricey – and it is. But so are fossil-fuel subsidies, which, with barely a murmur of protest, are currently running at more than $600 billion a year.

The IPCC report has provided a solid, scientific foundation for a low-carbon, resource-efficient future. Governments now have a clearer perspective on how to empower the lives and livelihoods of the world’s seven billion people (9-10 billion by 2050), while keeping humanity’s footprint, including climate change, within the planet’s boundaries of environmental sustainability.