The clean-energy revolution is already under way

by Rebecca Macfie / 16 August, 2017

Solar panels in Spain. Photo/Getty Images

The question is whether it is accelerating fast enough to turn the tide on climate change.

The crucial deadline for change is less than three years away, according to a coalition of climate leaders and researchers, including Lord Nicholas Stern and former UN climate boss Christiana Figueres. Dubbed Mission 2020, the group says global emissions have to peak by 2020 and then fall. They say the following key milestones must be met by that date:
  • renewable energy outcompetes fossil fuels for new energy;
  • zero-emission transport becomes the preferred form of all mobility in the world’s major cities;
  • large-scale deforestation is replaced with large-scale land restoration;
  • heavy industry – iron, steel, cement, chemicals, and oil and gas – commits to being compliant with the Paris climate goals; and
  • US$1 trillion a year is invested in climate action, and all financial institutions have a disclosed strategy for making the transition to a zero-carbon future.

It’s a daunting challenge, but there’s cause for optimism. Global carbon dioxide emissions have not increased for three years. The cost of solar photovoltaic cells has fallen 85% in the past seven years. Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) says solar power is already as cheap as coal in Germany, Australia, the US, Spain and Italy and by 2021 will be cheaper in China, India, Mexico, the UK and Brazil.

More renewable power is already being installed globally than coal, natural gas and oil combined. China – the world’s biggest emitter – installed as much renewable power as fossil-fuel power in 2016. This year, China cancelled 100 coal-fired power plants that were planned or already under construction, and in the US, 249 coal plants have been mothballed since 2010.

Queensland’s Galilee Basin.

The International Energy Agency says global coal demand has stalled, and the world’s biggest asset manager, BlackRock, recently declared “coal is dead”. Proposals for a massive new thermal coal mine in Queensland’s Galilee Basin run counter to the trend, however. Indian mining company Adani has announced the go-ahead for the project, which would be the biggest coal mine in Australia. But 17 global banks have so far refused to fund it, and it relies on winning a discounted A$1 billion infrastructure loan from the federal Government to build a rail line to transport the coal to the coast for export to India.

The cost of installing new onshore wind capacity has also plunged. BNEF says prices have fallen 30% in the past eight years, and both onshore and offshore wind will become significantly cheaper in coming years.

Electric vehicle sales are growing at 60% a year, the cost of batteries is falling fast and manufacturers are making deeper commitments to the technology. Volvo announced this month it will make only EVs and hybrid cars from 2019.

There are signs the world is moving in the right direction, the Mission 2020 campaign says, but “we will need an enormous amount of action and scaled-up ambition to harness the current momentum in order to travel down the decarbonisation curve at the necessary pace; the window to do that is still open”.

This article was first published in the July 22, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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