New study about Energy Transition: Expansion of renewable energies and simultaneous electrification of energy and transport make a climate-neutral society possible
“There is every reason to be optimistic about the energy transition,” says the scientific coordinator of the Climate Change Center Berlin Brandenburg, Prof. Dr. Felix Creutzig, at the start of the World Climate Conference (COP28) in Dubai. “If the expansion of renewable energies is driven forward and central areas such as heating and transport are electrified at the same time, it could be possible to transform the energy system into a CO2-neutral one by 2050.” Most future scenarios for climate stabilization remain unilaterally focused on fossil fuels, resulting in a distorted picture.
He came to this conclusion after analyzing various scenarios from integrated assessment models. His research findings have now been published by Elsevier / Science Direct under the title “Technological innovation enables low cost climate change mitigation”. Researchers from the Technical University of Berlin, the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change, the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, the University of Leeds (UK) and the University of Wisconsin (USA) were involved in the study.
The energy costs for renewable energies such as photovoltaics are lower than for fossil fuels “The economics are on the side of climate protection,” states the climate researcher. “Inexpensive renewable energies, heat pumps and electric two-, three- or four-wheeled vehicles make the global energy transition cost-effective.”
Many of the climate stabilization scenarios to date have focused unilaterally on coal or storing carbon dioxide in the ground. However, if you look at the empirical data, solar and wind energy would consistently outperform the modeling assumptions in reality, while bioenergy, for example, would underperform. Smaller technologies such as batteries and heat pumps would also perform well.
This means that a combination of energy-saving end-use technologies and the expansion of photovoltaics can decarbonize the energy system by 2050. And at low cost – electricity prices are likely to be cheaper than if we stick to fossil fuels.
Scenarios from integrated assessment models play a central role when it comes to showing political decision-makers ways of limiting global warming to well below 2°C. The future calculations of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a sub-organization of the United Nations, are particularly well known. In contrast to more recent findings from innovation studies, the scenarios are optimistic with regard to the use of general energy system technologies such as carbon capture and storage, while they do not adequately reflect the empirically observed innovation dynamics in technologies such as photovoltaics. The analysis by Creutzig and his research team shows that two key options for rapid decarbonization remain systematically underestimated in the models underlying the IPCC scenarios: firstly, the strong growth of intermittent renewables, especially photovoltaics, together with the electrification of sectors; and secondly, the widespread adoption of efficient end-use technologies that enable high service supply with low energy demand. A combination of continued growth of solar PV and low-to-medium energy demand sector coupling (a corridor of 250 to 500 exajoules of primary energy) would enable carbon neutrality by 2050, thus providing near-term cost-effective climate change mitigation and reducing the need for carbon removal in the second half of the century. The models would benefit from updated cost assumptions, a higher resolution of individual end-use technologies, a higher resolution of sector coupling and a comprehensive consideration of demand-side solutions. This would mean that some CO2 reduction strategies would actually be cost-saving and not costly.
Felix Creutzig is Professor of Sustainable Economics of Human Settlements at the Technical University of Berlin and head of the Land Use, Infrastructure and Transportation working group at the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change. He is also lead author of the Fifth IPCC Assessment Report and was lead author of the Global Energy Assessment. The research team includes Jérôme Hilaire (Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research), Gregory Nemet (University of Wisconsin-Madison), Finn Müller-Hansen (MCC, PIK) and Jan C. Minx (University of Leeds).
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