Renewables Need Not Replace Fossil Fuels 1-to-1: Report

Renewable energy does not need to replace fossil fuels exajoule for exajoule to rapidly reduce emissions associated with burning fossil fuels, according to a new report released by the Worldwatch Institute and the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Partnership (REEEP).

An enormous amount of energy is
wasted when converting fossil fuels to energy services such as light,
heat, and mobility. Due to the inherent efficiency of most renewable energy technologies
relative to fossil fuels, renewable energy does not need to replace
fossil fuels on a one to one basis, co-authors Janet Sawin and William Moomaw argue.

The energy losses associated with fossil fuels can be side-stepped through the use of
renewable energy, providing the same level of energy services with far
less primary energy. In turn, improvements in energy efficiency make it
easier, cheaper, and faster for renewables to achieve a large share of
total energy production, while also rapidly reducing greenhouse gases
and other emissions associated with energy use.

“Humanity can prevent catastrophic climate change if we act now and adopt policies that unleash the full potential of these resources,” says co-author William Moomaw. “But this goal is not likely to be achieved if our only measure of success is emissions reductions. Climate change is fundamentally a development issue, not a pollution problem. No one benefits from the release of greenhouse gas emissions, but developed and developing nations alike will benefit in numerous ways from the transition to an energy-efficient and renewable world.”

For more than a decade, solar power, wind power, and other renewable technologies have experienced double-digit annual growth rates. Renewables technologies are already enabling Germany, Spain, Sweden, the United States, and several other countries to avoid carbon dioxide emissions. And in recent years, several communities have successfully transitioned from fossil fuels to 100% renewable energy, or are well on their way.

“Each of these communities has taken its own path, but all have shared a major emphasis on improving energy efficiency in concert with a dramatic ramp-up in renewables,” says Worldwatch researcher and co-author Janet Sawin. “For the world to avoid catastrophic climate change and an insecure economic future, this transition must be accelerated, with success stories scaled up and strategies shared across national boundaries.”

A combination of political will and the right policies can capitalize on these achievements and get the world on track to mitigate climate change in the near term while also meeting rising demand for energy services, creating new jobs and boosting the global economy, providing energy access for the world’s poorest people, and improving the natural environment and human health, the report concludes.

Renewable Revolution recommends three policy elements that must be implemented in parallel to achieve these goals:

  1. Put a price on carbon that increases over time. This can be achieved through a cap-and-trade system, or through a “bottom tax” that sets a floor under fossil fuel prices and that increases each year.
  2. Enact policies that overcome institutional and regulatory barriers to renewable energy and energy efficiency improvements and that drive the required revolution. For example, Germany’s feed-in tariff has made the nation a renewable energy powerhouse. Over the past decade, electricity generation from wind power has increased by a factor of 10, and from solar photovoltaics (PV) by a factor of more than 100. Germany now generates more than 15% of its electricity with renewables and aims for 30% by 2020.
  3. Develop a strategy for phasing out existing inefficient carbon-emitting capital stock, including old coal-fired power plants, that includes the elimination of fossil fuel subsidies.

The report concludes that this transition to a highly efficient economy utilizing renewable energy is essential for both developed and developing countries. Co-authors Sawin and Moomaw find that this is the only way that degradation of the climate system can be halted and is the only real option for raising billions of people out of poverty.

“We have a once-in-a-century opportunity to make a transformation from an unsustainable economy fueled by poorly distributed fossil fuels to an enduring and secure economy that runs on renewable energy and lasts forever,” the authors write. “The energy choices made by policymakers and negotiators, and those made by all people during the next few years, will determine the energy future of much of the world for decades to come—and the future of the global climate and human civilization for centuries.”

Janet Sawin is a Senior Researcher at the Worldwatch Institute and William Moomaw is Professor of International Environmental Policy at the Fletcher School at Tufts University, where he is founding director of the Center for International Environment and Resource Policy. Both are Coordinating Lead Authors of the forthcoming IPCC Special Report on Renewable Energy and Climate Change Mitigation. The report also includes contributions from other international experts.

Renewable Revolution was released at an official UNFCC side event in Copenhagen on Wednesday, December 16, 2009, it is available for download at the link below.

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