24. 04. 2014

Reflections on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change - Part 2 – IPCC Guidance: What Should We Be Doing Now?

The Report from Working Groups I (on the science of climate change) and II (on the impacts of climate change on human society) were – inevitably – deeply depressing. The science is what it is, and won’t go away. And the grim analysis of what this means for humankind (unless we change our ways dramatically and urgently) flows with an unavoidably ruthless logic from that science.

So the Report from Working Group III came as a massive relief! If governments get moving now, and stick with the challenge of radical decarbonisation over the next twenty years, then we can still crack it. By which, I mean have a reasonable prospect of avoiding runaway climate change. Or even irreversible climate change.

Its analysis of the global energy system is particularly refreshing. It basically confirms that a combination of measures to promote massive improvements in energy efficiency, a tripling of levels of investment into renewable energy, together with the accelerated deployment of storage technologies and “smart grids”, will do it. It’s not too late.

(This is, of course, the “big picture story” that I set out to tell in The World We Made. So I obviously found myself letting out a great big (metaphorical) sigh of relief to have the “doability” of that story so authoritatively confirmed!)

Renewable energy already provides 21% of world electricity demand, and the IPCC calculates that the combined potential of all renewables over the next few decades could meet total primary energy demand (i.e. electricity plus heat plus transportation) nearly three times over. Just let that one sink in a moment. Nearly three times over!

Of all those renewable energy technologies, solar energy has the biggest potential – as many have been arguing for a long time. As the Solar Trade Association commented last week:

“The IPCC calculates that solar energy has the largest technical potential – the “largest by a large magnitude” – exceeding world energy demand on its own. Solar power is also highlighted as being exceptionally rich in the employment opportunities, with eighteen and seven times more jobs per unit of power generated than nuclear and wind energy respectively.”

So this confirms the benefits of having a clear solar strategy for the UK, with a target of 1 million solar roofs by 2015. Important to praise the Government for that, but if you ask me, it’s still doing solar half-cock. It’s still ignoring the huge potential for large solar installations on roofs, refusing to amend the current Feed-in Tariffs to liberate that potential market. As usual, it’s running scared of the Big 6 on this one. They are all petrified they might see a similar reduction in their total available market as has already happened in Germany.

In The World We Made, the front cover of The Economist in 2016 tells a simple story: “Solar Sweeps the Field”. Just two more years! Just wait and see!

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25. 04. 2014
Ed Conduit

Can burning hydrocarbons really be replaced? Coal is the big growth area, as the IPCC acknowledges, and the political will to replace it by solar is unlikely to develop. Reducing the birth rate is a more realistic way to slow global warming, though this largely disappeared in WG3. How about a "global one child policy", Jonothon?

24. 04. 2014
Simon Evans

Hi Jonathon,
Enjoyed your piece. NB though that the IPCC didn't say investment in renewables should triple. In part that's because it studiously avoids giving instructions so everything it says is couched along the lines of "pathways to 2C generally include...".
On the specific point it said cost-effective mitigation pathways include a tripling in the share of low-carbon generation in the electricity sector by 2050. It counts nuclear, renewables and CCS under that banner. Actually CCS is THE key tech in the IPCC scenarios. Sadly! since it's unproven at scale. Removing CCS from the equation would push the cost of mitigation up by 128%, according to the IPCC. That's more than double. I'm not sure the IPCC looked at scenarios without nuclear,bioenergy or CCS.
I share (some) of your optimism on solar, but for now it remains much more expensive than eg onshore wind, despite the massive falls in PV costs in last decade.
Cheers, Simon

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