Hitting 86 Percent Renewable Energy by 2050 Requires These Key Changes

It's doable, but will require major changes.

Unsplash / Aniek Wessel

The world is in danger of missing a target to keep temperature rises below two degrees Celsius, a new report claims, but with the correct steps it could avoid climate catastrophe.

The International Renewable Energy Agency released its latest version of Global Energy Transformation: A Roadmap to 2050 this week, outlining how the world can move from taking 20 percent of its power generation from renewable energy as it does today, to reach 86 percent by 2050. It’s part of a more aggressive approach to emissions that transforms energy and society.

“The energy transformation is gaining momentum, but it must accelerate even faster,” IRENA Director-General Francesco La Camera said in a statement. “The UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda and the review of national climate pledges under the Paris Agreement are milestones for raising the level of ambition. Urgent action on the ground at all levels is vital, in particular unlocking the investments needed to further strengthen the momentum of this energy transformation. Speed and forward-looking leadership will be critical — the world in 2050 depends on the energy decisions we take today.”

The report calls for $15 trillion in additional investments by 2050, a 40 percent decrease compared to the amount listed in a 2017 report. Total energy investment would need to reach $110 trillion, or two percent of gross domestic product, by that year. The payoff could be immense (beyond the obvious payoff of avoiding climate disaster) as every dollar spent in energy transition could return between three and seven dollars.

Fixing some of these markers will require structural shifts, like by moving from single passenger cars to shared mobility. Others will require more innovation in renewable energy sources to encourage further growth. Infrastructure investment, the report stresses, will need to focus on sustainability in the long term to reach its targets.

Solar panels in a field.

Unsplash / American Public Power Association

Climate Change Report: Where the World is Failing

The document lists 21 areas the world will need to consider to meet its goals. There is one area where the world is on track:

  • Onshore wind costs. These have moved from $80 per megawatt-hour in 2010 to $56 per megawatt-hour today. These need to reach $50 by 2030 and $40 by 2050. This calls for competitive bidding and market regulation reform.

One area shows signs of promise, but it’s too early to tell:

  • Hydrogen production with renewable electricity. It needs to reach three exajoules by 2030 and 19 exajoules by 2050. The report states that the world needs to “find the niches where this makes sense today and support commercial-scale pilot projects.”

There are a further six areas where progress is being made to get on track:

  • The share of renewable energy in power generation. This has moved from 20 percent in 2010 to 25 percent today. It needs to reach 57 percent by 2030 and 86 percent by 2050. The report states that to reach these targets the world will need to “emphasize solar and wind deployment, but also maximize solid biomass and biogas in the niche applications where they make sense.”
  • Annual photovoltaic solar additions, which was at 17 gigawatts per year in 2010 and 109 gigawatts per year today. It needs to reach 300 gigawatts by 2030 and 360 gigawatts by 2050.
  • Passenger electric cars on the road. This was at less than half a million in 2010 and six million today. It needs to reach 157 million by 2030 and 1.2 billion by 2050. The report calls for “measures to support getting electric cars purchasing price down and invest heavily in charging infrastructure.”
  • Solar thermal collectors. This was at 290 million square meters in 2010 and has reached 675 million square meters as of today. It needs to reach two billion square meters by 2030, and 5.8 billion square meters by 2050, but this will mean greater public awareness.
  • Photovoltaic solar costs. This was at $347 per megawatt-hour in 2010, and has plummeted to $81 as of today. It needs to hit $58 by 2030 and $38 by 2050.
  • Smart meters in the residential sector, which today are in 25 percent of homes. These need to reach 50 percent of homes by 2030 and 82 percent by 2050.

Unfortunately, there are 14 key areas where humanity is off track:

  • Share of electricity in total final energy consumption. This was at 18 percent in 2010 and 20 percent today, but needs to hit 29 percent by 2030 and 49 percent by 2050.
  • Annual wind additions, which were at 31 gigawatts per year in 2010 and 54 gigawatts per year today. It needs to reach 200 gigawatts by 2030 and 240 gigawatts by 2050.
  • Heat pumps are at 20 million today, but they need to hit 155 million in 2030 and 334 million in 2050.
  • The total renewable energy share increase in the total final energy consumption. This is changing by 0.2 percentage points per year, but it really needs to be moving 0.8 points by 2030 and 1.7 points by 2050.
  • Transport liquid biofuels. They’ve moved from 100 billion liters per year in 2010 to 130 billion in the present day, but we need to reach 370 billion by 2030 and 650 billion by 2050.
  • Energy intensity improvement rates. This moved 1.2 percent per year from 2000 to 2010 and 2.3 percent from 2010 to 2017, but it needs to move around 3.3 percent from 2016 to 2050.
  • Total final energy consumption per capita was 51 gigajoules in 2010 and 53 gigajoules today, but it needs to reverse and reach 38 gigajoules by 2050.
  • Oil demand is increasing from 87 million barrels per day in 2010 to 95 million barrels today, but needs to reach 60 million by 2030 and 22 million by 2050.
  • Natural gas demand is also rising, from 3,307 billion cubic meters per year in 2010 to 3,752 billion in the present day. This can increase to 4,000 billion by 2030, but needs to hit 2,250 billion by 2050.
  • Coal demand is another riser, from 4,963 megatonnes of coal equivalent per year in 2010 to 5,357 megatonnes today. This needs to reach 3,190 megatonnes by 2030 and 713 megatonnes by 2050.
  • Total fossil fuel reduction relative to today needs to reduce 20 percent by 2030 and 64 percent by 2050.
  • Total carbon dioxide needs to reduce 27 percent by 2030 and 71 percent by 2050 relative to today.
  • Emissions per capita went from 4.3 tons in 2010 to 4.6 tons in the present day, but needs to reach 2.9 tons by 2030 and 1.1 tons by 2050.

Fixing these markers may prove tricky, but the end result could be a planet that sticks to its expected goals as outlined in the Paris Agreement.

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