Questions & Answers
The renewable solution
Can we really meet the needs of everyone on the planet with renewable energy by 2050?
According to the findings we’ve presented in The Energy Report, “Yes we can.” The report – which contains a comprehensive energy scenario for 2050 prepared by global energy experts Ecofys – is the most ambitious ever attempted. It shows that it is possible meet the world’s energy needs sustainably, with 95 per cent coming from renewable sources.
Does that take population growth into account?
It assumes the world’s population will grow to nine billion. What’s more, we’re talking about bringing energy to everyone – including the 1.4 billion people who don’t have reliable access to electricity at the moment.
How is the Ecofys scenario so different from previous energy scenarios?
Our report is truly global in scope – we believe that fair, universal access to energy should be a given. Because we’re aiming for a complete phase-out of fossil fuels, we’ve paid particular attention to the role of bioenergy. But the most striking thing about our scenario is that it’s based on global energy demand in 2050 being 15 per cent lower than it is today. Most other analyses predict that it will double at least.
So we’ll have to stop doing lots of things that use energy?
Not at all. Economies will continue to grow, and people will live ever-more mobile lives – the scenario even allows for aviation to expand as much as it’s expected to. Instead, we need to find ways of doing more with less – to use energy as efficiently as possible.
What types of energy efficiencies are you suggesting?
Using more recycled and energy-efficient materials. Constructing super-insulated buildings that need minimal energy for heating and cooling, and upgrading existing ones. Replacing millions of traditional cooking stoves with energy-efficient ones, or solar heaters. Running transport systems more efficiently. The solutions are already out there – the Ecofys scenario shows just how much we could save if we started using them worldwide.
So where will we get this energy from?
As far as possible, we’ll use electrical energy generated from renewable sources – chiefly wind, solar, biomass and hydropower. Cars, for example, would be fully electrified. “Smart” electricity grids will efficiently manage variations in supply and demand, and transport electricity over long distances. We’ll make the most of energy from the sun and from beneath the Earth’s surface (geothermal) to provide most of the heat for buildings and industry.
But you can’t use electricity or heat to power a jet plane, can you?
Not yet. As a last resort, we’ll need biofuels – for aviation, as you say, for ships and long- distance trucks, and in some industrial processes. Some of this would come from waste products, but we’d still need to grow biofuel crops and take more wood from forests to meet demand. It’s possible to do this sustainably – but we need to be absolutely sure we don’t threaten food and water supplies, damage biodiversity or put more CO2 into the atmosphere.
The analysis suggests we can meet 95 per cent of our energy needs from renewables. What about the other 5 per cent?
We need to use some coal in certain industrial processes (steel production, for example) which currently rely on coal’s chemical properties as well as very high temperatures. But that’s not to say we won’t find alternative production methods in the next 40 years.
Does the Ecofys scenario depend on any unproven technologies?
No. It’s based on proven and expanding technologies like solar and wind power, geothermal heat and biofuels that are already in use. It also includes some biofuels from algae and some hydrogen – but since these areas are still in their infancy, they form only a very small proportion of the energy mix in the 2050 scenario.
Won’t it be impossibly expensive?
Actually, it will end up saving money. Yes, the world will need to make big upfront investments – up to 2 per cent of global GDP – to generate electricity from renewables on a massive scale, modernize electricity grids, transform transport systems and improve the energy efficiency of existing buildings. But by around 2040, the savings – from energy efficiency and reduced fuel costs – start to outweigh the costs. By 2050, we’ll save nearly €4 trillion a year – and that’s without counting any savings we make from improved public health and avoiding the worst impacts of climate change.