The climate pledges made through the Paris Accord are some of the most ambitious to date. But, even if countries fulfill their pledges, will it be enough to accomplish the 2-degree Celsius goal scientists say we need to meet to avoid the worst consequences of climate change?
“There is no single story about where the future of energy is going,” said Eric Masanet, the head of the International Energy Association’s (IEA) Energy Demand Technology Unit, at a June 26 event on the IEA’s latest Energy Technology Perspectives 2017 report hosted by EPIC, Clean Energy Trust, Coalition Energy, Smartgrid Cluster and Energy Foundry. “We have a lot of trends, which are currently shaping the energy system in a very rapid way. But where it will go will be a story of where policy will lead it.”
The report, which Masanet called the most ambitious to date, looks at how far clean energy technologies could move the energy sector towards higher climate change ambitions if technological innovations were pushed to their maximum practical limits. It shows that the policies currently in place are not enough. Only 3 out of 26 assessed technologies remain “on track” to meet climate objectives: electric vehicles, energy storage, and solar PV and onshore wind.
In the case of solar PV and onshore wind, electricity generation from these sources is expected to grow by 2.5 times and 1.7 times, respectively by 2020—making them the technologies that are leading the low-carbon transition. But, they can’t do it alone. In order to succeed in transforming the energy sector, governments need to implement policies that drive the development of a diversified mix of energy technologies. Masanet especially emphasized the importance of carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) as well as optimizing the use of sustainable biomass.
Buildings could also play an important role in moving the world towards a low-carbon future. As the global population is increasing, energy demand in the building sector continues to grow. This trend needs to be reversed in a very aggressive way, said Masanet, emphasizing the need for the sustainable production of materials. High-efficiency lighting, cooling and appliances could also save nearly three-quarters of today’s global electricity demand between now and 2030 if deployed quickly, according to the report.
Masanet also emphasized needed changes in the transportation sector. While globally there are 2 million plug-in electric vehicles in circulation, their sales growth is beginning to diminish. In the years to come, the transportation sector will need to shed its oil dependence. Doing so will require assertive policies. Masanet explained that smarter urban planning so that people drive less and need fewer cars could play a role.
Masanet remains optimistic that the low-carbon transition can be realized. But, achieving it will require smart policies and heavy investments—both by the public and private sectors—in clean energy. The technology portfolio and the policy portfolio exist, but the pace of progress is currently too slow, Masanet concluded.