Climate Change: Transitioning to Clean Energy

 A faster transition is the most effective option for combatting climate change

“Electrification of everything” has become a catchphrase attached to the transition to a net-zero economy - but massive blackouts in Texas, California, and other parts of the world have shown that power infrastructure must become more resilient, smarter, and flexible. Renewable energy accounted for about 14% of all global energy in 2020, a slight increase compared with the prior year thanks to a mix that included solar, wind, geothermal, and modern biomass energy (alongside traditional hydroelectric). Wind and solar are projected to provide abundant electrical power as a way to decarbonize; thanks to economies of scale and technologies like efficient solar cells and larger wind turbines, these energy sources now compete price-wise with fossil fuels. An analysis by the investment bank Lazard showed that during the past decade the “levelized” cost (over a farm’s lifetime) of energy from wind farms has decreased by two-thirds, and from utility-scale solar farms by nearly 90%. The emergence of new renewable energy markets has meanwhile reduced operating costs. In developing countries, renewable energy mini-grids are electrifying communities, while in developed countries solar power is reducing reliance on the grid, bolstered by renewable energy credits and tax incentives.

Decarbonizing transportation poses the biggest challenge. Germany and China have announced plans to phase out internal combustion engines entirely, and the number of electric vehicles on the road is projected to increase by more than 7,000% between 2017 and 2030. Still, this will account for less than 15% of the vehicles expected to be in operation by then. GM’s announcement in 2021 that it is going “all electric” by 2035 was the first of its kind for a major manufacturer, and will likely be followed. Aviation and shipping are on track to account for nearly 40% of carbon-dioxide emissions by 2050, though an Energy Transitions Commission report outlined a plan to cut emissions with smarter logistics that improve efficiency and temper demand for carbon-intensive transport. Still, the high cost of energy storage in batteries has prevented widespread adoption of intermittent renewable energy; massive improvement in energy density is needed for lithium-ion batteries to compete with liquid fuels. A cleaning-up of battery supply chains is necessary, from working conditions in mines that supply raw materials to the pollution associated with improper disposal. The World Economic Forum’s Global Battery Alliance was created in 2017 to address these challenges.

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