Faster, Greener, Fairer: What needs to happen next to transform our energy system

Posted on January, 12 2024

The renewables race has started. Now it must accelerate, replacing fossil fuels with clean energy while not leaving people and nature behind, writes WWF Global Energy Lead Dean Cooper.
While governments at COP28 failed to commit to a full phase out of all fossil fuels, the historic commitment they reached to ‘transition away’ from them must signal the beginning of the end of the age of coal, oil, and gas - the main drivers of the climate crisis. The science is clear - to prevent the worst consequences of global warming, we must rapidly replace fossil fuels with cleaner and cheaper renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar.

It is unfortunate that the COP28 decision left the door open for dangerous distractions such as large-scale carbon capture utilization and storage, and ‘transitional fuels’. These technologies must not be allowed to postpone the massive scaling-up of proven and affordable renewable energy technology.

To deliver an energy transition which is greener, faster, and fairer, we need to overcome two key challenges: the timeline for action, and how to work together. 
  1. It’s clear from the latest science that reaching net-zero emissions after 2050 is too late to avoid the most catastrophic consequences of climate change. We need immediate action.
  2. We will also not be able to fully tackle the climate crisis if all countries continue to pursue their own energy and climate objectives independently. Full commitment from all countries to implement a single global action plan is essential, and this means both compromise and the implementation of relevant measures by everyone.

Faster, greener, and fairer

New analysis from the International Energy Agency shows the renewables race is picking up speed, with cleaner sources of energy being rolled out faster than any other time in the last three decades. The world added 50% more renewable capacity in 2023 than it did in the previous year, with solar PV accounting for three-quarters of additions worldwide. However, we are not yet on track to triple renewable capacity by 2030, which was agreed at COP28 and should be seen as a minimum target.

Our own research shows that a future powered by renewable energy is 2-16 times better for nature and people than a business-as-usual, fossil fuel-dominated one. But it’s also crucial that this shift is done in the right way to avoid benefiting some people at the expense of others, or worsening the biodiversity crisis.

The rapid roll-out of renewables and the parallel phase out of fossil fuels needs to take into account the impact on affected communities and ensure this shift is just and fair. While twice as many jobs would be created in a rapid shift to renewables than in a business-as-usual scenario, this shouldn’t be a boost to some but leave others behind. This means reskilling and building new capacity to allow the current fossil fuel workforce to support and benefit from the scale up of renewables.

Building a nature-positive energy system

Solar and wind power are the two renewable energy sources that will be the best choices overall, providing sufficient, cost-efficient power from natural resources with the least disruption to the environment. But even then, energy developers must take account of their impact. 

To avoid causing unnecessary harm to nature, we need to see effective and efficient permitting and siting for new renewable projects. For example, energy developers must install onshore wind turbines in a way that reduces the impact on migrating birds, and offshore ones that don’t destroy ocean beds that support biodiversity. Solar panels must be sited in a way that considers alternative land use options (particularly food production) so we use the space we have more effectively and protect crucial habitats. 

We also need to consider how to reduce the future demand for those critical minerals essential for wind and solar technologies. And we must think about the consequences for associated, inevitable grid expansion. This includes how to avoid conservation areas, and the use of potential decentralised solutions such as mini-grids (rather than a single interconnected infrastructure within each country). 

Renewable energy is certainly our best option for the future. It can power our planet within the short timeframe available in a way that avoids the loss of critical conservation areas and ensures acceptable living conditions for all - but only if we take immediate action and work together to secure a stable climate and a liveable planet.
Roof-top solar helps avoid using extra land that could be used for other purposes, such as habitats or food production.
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