By Sue Landau
Even as President Donald Trump sets the United States back on a fossil fuel path, updated road maps from environmentalist groups say industrial economies can be weaned off carbon dependence by 2050 using energy savings and existing technology.
For at least the past decade, various groups have been working on feasibility studies and forecasting models to flesh out their vision of how this could be done. Three pioneers stand out: Negawatt in France, Zero Carbon Britain and the Rocky Mountain Institute in the United States.
Although their scenarios have been around for years and their work is regularly sent to governments, their recommendations are not widely known. Yet they offer responses to climate change that could help bridge the gap between stated intentions and practice.
Last year the Paris Climate Agreement came into force, making history by committing most nations to cutting greenhouse gas emissions enough by 2050 to cap global warming by the year 2100. While measures adopted so far would fall well short of that goal, these scenarios set out ways to make it happen.
Key to their vision is the need to make radical energy savings right across society and the economy. And even though that would require big investments, over time costs would be lower than carrying on as now, they forecast. Once major energy savings are factored in, at least in the older industrial countries, renewables can provide the rest.
This year has already seen new updates from Negawatt and Zero Carbon Britain, and last year the Rocky Mountain Institute published a roadmap for China with local partners. A variety of other studies have also emerged over the years, including Greenpeace’s worldwide Energy [R]evolution scenario, updated in 2015.
And the energy establishment has just weighed in with a report from the International Energy Agency (IEA) and International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) on ways to meet Paris Agreement targets. This is technically possible, investments are not prohibitive, but major policy adjustments are required, it says. However, their scenario keeps nuclear power and sees a need for some fossil fuels out to 2050.
Green ways to clean up our act
Negawatt and Zero Carbon Britain bring similar outlooks to the table for France and Britain respectively. The Rocky Mountain Institute’s scenarios for the United States and for China address rather different situations but still use the same underlying principles. Here are some key points:
– Roll back energy demand by 2050
In Britain and France this would at least halve today’s energy demand. To do so, a massive retrofit of existing building stock is needed. So far no country has committed to anything like this.
Transport is also critical – bringing in cleaner cars and trucks, developing rail freight and shifting habits away from individual to collective transport in urban areas. In China, energy efficiency measures can reduce the need for coal, freeing up rail freight capacity, which in turn reins in use of diesel for road freight.
Agriculture and industry would need to cut back on non-renewable raw materials and greenhouse gas emissions, for example with extensive recycling of materials for industry and agricultural waste. Petrochemical use could be halved in France.
Land for animal rearing would be reduced while cropland would increase, implying a dietary shift towards consuming less meat. Managed forestry would gain importance as a source of biomass for energy, wood for the building industry and as a carbon sink.
– Renewable electricity and gas
With energy demand halved, France and Britain could get all their energy just from renewable sources. That means phasing out not only fossil fuels but also nuclear power, even in France, which generates 75 percent of its electricity from atomic energy now.
Onshore and offshore wind power would provide the main energy source in northern Europe, but solar and biomass would also be used. Biomass from agricultural waste and forestry would be used to generate biogas, which could be piped to consumers for heating via the existing gas network.
Other ideas have also emerged on this front. In a 2010 report, Pricewaterhouse Coopers and partners proposed a single power market for Europe and North Africa to supply 100 percent renewable electricity by 2050. A “SuperSmart” cross-border grid would manage loads according to demand, fed by solar power from southern Europe and North Africa, and wind and tides from northern Europe.
– Solutions use existing technologies
Instead of waiting for super-batteries to be developed to compensate for the variability of wind and solar power, the French and British scenarios propose turning unstockable electricity into stockable gas.
Sun and wind generate more power than needed 82 percent of the time. The surplus can be used to hydrolyze water to produce hydrogen, which is then combined with carbon dioxide from agricultural waste to make methane. This can be burned in gas-fired power stations to make up the slack.
Also, synthetic methane plus bio-methane from agricultural and forest waste could completely replace fossil gas – important for Britain now that its North Sea gas fields are running down, and for energy independence generally.
The carbon equation in all this is neutral, as biogas and synthetic gas release only carbon recently absorbed from the atmosphere. Fossil fuels, on the other hand, add carbon absorbed eons ago to the planet’s carbon metabolism.
Local or regional actors could provide critical momentum.
There are signs this transition is partially underway. The price of renewable energy has fallen and is now competitive with fossil fuels despite low oil prices. Energy consumption has begun to fall in the older industrial countries even as economic indicators point upwards.
Electric and hybrid vehicles are being rolled out. And the gulf between what is needed and what politicians can deliver has narrowed slightly – witness the Paris Agreement itself and China’s commitment to pricing carbon and reducing coal use.
However, these scenarios require redrawing regulations and laws, so remain politically challenging. But local and regional actors could provide critical momentum.
And if the drastic changes outlined in these road maps are hard to imagine, consider this: today’s society would surely have been unimaginable some 30 years ago.
“We have responded with the urgency demanded by current climate change science, taking a physically realistic perspective rather than adhering to what might be politically or socially palatable today,” Zero Carbon Britain said in its 2013 report.
“It is unethical to treat fundamental needs in the future, and the needs of others in the global community, as equivalent to our lifestyle preferences in the West today.”
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Sue Landau is a freelance writer and translator based in Paris. She worked in financial and business journalism for 25 years at the International Herald Tribune, Reuters and the Investor’s Chronicle, chiefly in London and Paris. She reported on energy, new technologies, media and advertising, corporate and industry issues, wealth management and investment, and regional development.