Is The $110 Trillion Renewable Revolution Feasible?


By Alan Mammoser

A new report from the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) show that, to save the planet, a massive transformation of the world’s energy system will need to occur, in which a large-scale shift to renewables and new carbon-free fuels is accompanied by a precipitous decline of hydrocarbons. The report gives solid numbers on what the world will look like in 2050 if the goals of the Paris Climate Accord are achieved.

In Global Renewables Outlook 2050, the Abu Dhabi-based agency builds on its earlier Global Energy Transformation: A Roadmap to 2050 reports, which were published during the past two years. These keystone reports, which provide an overall vision for IRENA’s efforts, give global and large regional views of a new energy landscape in which nations successfully tackle the climate challenge.

The data rich report, almost 300 pages, may be downloaded from IRENA’s website.

Five Pillars

IRENA identifies what it calls five ‘pillars’ supporting the great energy transition: Electrification (renewables will meet nearly half of all energy demand and rise from today’s 26% share in global electricity consumption to 86% in 2050); Increased flexibility of power systems (as the share of variable renewable energy greatly increases); Scaling up of ‘conventional’ renewable sources (hydropower, bioenergy, solar thermal and geothermal); Green Hydrogen (to rise from nearly zero today to 160 megatonnes produced annually in 2050); and, Innovations to decarbonize the most difficult sectors (for freight, shipping, aviation and heavy industry there will be need of advances in biofuels, synthetic fuels, new materials and ‘circular economy’ systems).

A Roadmap to Paris

IRENA’s report sets out a quantified ‘roadmap’ but makes no prediction. It acknowledges the need for a major state role and leaves it to the political will of states and nations to enact the policies, reforms and carefully planned interventions that will guide economies toward the Paris Agreement’s goals.

It is not stated but obvious in this report that we have a long way to go. To set the world on a pathway toward the Paris goals (which would limit global temperature rise to less than 2 degrees Celsius and closer to 1.5 C during this century) energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions will need to be reduced by at least 3.8% annually from now until 2050, with continued reductions thereafter.

That we are far from this is clear, as trends of the past five years show 1.3% annual growth in CO2 emissions. If we continue, we will put the planet on track for a temperature increase of more than 3°C above pre-industrial levels.

To show the way to a better result, IRENA provides scenarios starting from a baseline of policies that were in place in 2015 (when the Paris Agreement was signed). A ‘Planned Energy Scenario’ comes from governments’ current energy plans, policies and targets (as of April 2019), including countries’ Nationally Determined Contributions under the Paris Agreement.

These are compared with a ‘Transforming Energy Scenario,’ which shows 2030 and 2050 outcomes based largely on renewable energy and improving efficiency. The agency calls this scenario, which reaches the Paris goals, ‘ambitious, yet realistic.’

In the Transforming Energy Scenario, annual energy-related CO2 emissions fall more than 70% from now until 2050. In absolute terms, annual emissions fall from 34 Metric Gigatons (Gt) today to below 10 Gt in 2050 (with the Planned scenario, they barely reduce to just 33 Gt in 2050). By then, half of global energy demand will be supplied by electricity.

This pathway is in fact possible with current and anticipated technologies. They include: renewable power generation (wind, solar PV, etc.), extensive electrification of transport (electric vehicles) and heat (district heating), direct renewable use (solar thermal, biomass), energy efficiency (thermal insulation of buildings) and infrastructure investment (power grids, flexibility with storage). All of these must be deployed fairly rapidly at large scale.

Key technologies are shown in proportion in the overall solution. The report shows this in large, aggregate numbers for the whole world and for large regions. So the reader begins to see the picture of what 2050 will (or should) look like, in terms of the scale of the technologies that will need to be in place then (see report Fig. 1.4, p. 65).

Solar and wind energy will dominate electricity production. There will be huge roles for energy efficiency programs, electric vehicles and hydrogen. Other fossil fuel replacements will play smaller but critical roles in achieving the 2050 outcome, including hydro-power, biofuels and other renewable sources. Renewables will need to provide two-thirds of the world’s energy supply in 2050.

The cost of the Transforming scenario is significant but not overwhelming. IRENA argues that it is largely a matter of redirection of investment over the next 30 years, with heavier investment in renewables required up front during the first ten years of the transition from now to 2030. The cost to transform the world’s energy system over thirty years to 2050 is put at $110 Trillion. This compares well to the report’s estimate of $95 Trillion of energy investment that will occur under current plans, much of it not climate-safe. The avoided external costs of air pollution and climate change are factored in to the advantage of the Transforming scenario (see report Fig. 1.22, page 97).

The scenarios and their costs are derived from modelling using the agency’s deep and extensive databases. IRENA asserts that what is gained from the energy transition to renewables and high efficiency will be much greater than the cost, in economic and social terms. In sheer dollars, the report shows that the Transforming scenario would have somewhat higher actual cost but would result in gains of between $50 trillion and $142 trillion in reduced environmental and health externalities.

A Path to Zero

In the Transforming Energy Scenario, renewable sources reign supreme as hydrocarbons greatly decline and CO2 emissions fall by more than two-thirds from today’s level. But that remaining one-third must also be dealt with. These emissions come largely from ‘hard-to-decarbonize’ sectors such as shipping, aviation and heavy industry. IRENA would like to have these emissions gone by 2050 to ensure that temperatures stop rising, but realizes that they will likely take longer to solve. The report says it can be done and looks to 2060.

IRENA provides a ‘Deeper Decarbonization Perspective’ that goes beyond the Transforming scenario. It describes two approaches, zero emissions and net-zero emissions with CO2 removal, and states that the optimal mix of these objectives is not known at this time. The report shows the reductions that would occur by sector in the two approaches, the technologies relevant to each sector, and the math of how these combine to reduce global energy-related carbon emissions to zero (see report Fig. 5.2, pages 161-3).

The report describes a range of solutions to reduce emissions in the challenging sectors, including carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS), innovation to support very high variable renewable energy (looking at the example of Sweden), and a much greater role for green hydrogen and synthetic fuels. The promise of green hydrogen receives a stronger emphasis in this year’s report, which probably shows its rising prominence in the world’s consideration of post-carbon solutions.

A Path to Equity

While IRENA calls for a seismic shift away from hydrocarbons, the agency is by no means callous toward countries and the many workers committed to these sectors. It acknowledges that their way of making a living will be greatly disrupted and calls for strategies to minimize the impacts. It presents a positive picture in chapters devoted to global and regional socio-economic impacts, concluding that while the fossil fuel sector will lose jobs, all global regions will gain more energy sector jobs than they lose (see report Fig. 4.6, page 144).

The report enhances its socio-economic analysis by calling for a global ‘Green New Deal,’ a comprehensive social, economic and environmental vision inspired by the hoped-for energy transition (see report Fig. 6.1, page 193).

IRENA now anticipates an important indicator of any actual momentum toward an energy transition, in the form of the upcoming deadline for countries, by the end of this year, to present their updated Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement. In his Foreword, Director-General Francesco La Camera links the NDCs to the massive stimulus packages that countries are now in the midst of implementing in the face of the current Pandemic. He calls for the NDCs to be the ‘backbone’ of such packages, such that they look to a long-term shift to a decarbonized world.

As he writes, ‘The time has come to invest trillions, not into fossil fuels, but into sustainable energy infrastructure… While each country must work with a different resource mix, all of them need a 21st-century energy system. The response (to the pandemic) must provide more than just a bail-out for existing socio-economic structures.’

IRENA’s report, with its Transforming Energy Scenario and its Deeper Decarbonization Perspective, show what deep and lasting changes will need to made in the world’s energy systems. The great energy transition will not be easy. But IRENA shows convincingly that it’s possible, if we want it.

Crude Oil


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here