The climate change imperative demands nothing short of an energy revolution. The expert consensus is that this fundamental shift must begin immediately and be well underway within the next ten years in order to avert the worst impacts. What is needed is a complete transformation of the way we produce, consume and distribute energy, and at the same time maintain economic growth. Nothing short of such a revolution will enable us to limit global warming to less than a rise in temperature of well below 2° Celsius, above which the impacts become devastating.
Current electricity generation relies mainly on burning fossil fuels, with their associated CO2 emissions, in very large power stations that waste much of their primary input energy. More energy is lost as the power is moved around the electricity grid network and converted from high transmission voltage down to a supply suitable for domestic or commercial consumers.
Moreover, the system is innately vulnerable to disruption: localized technical, weather-related, or even deliberately caused faults can quickly cascade, resulting in widespread blackouts. Whichever technology is used to generate electricity within this old-fashioned configuration, it will inevitably be subject to some, or all, of these problems. At the core of the Energy [R]evolution there therefore needs to be a change in the way that energy is both produced and distributed.
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The Energy [R]evolution can be achieved by adhering to five key principles:
- Respect natural limits – phase out fossil fuels by the end of this century We must learn to respect natural limits. There is only so much carbon that the atmosphere can absorb. Each year we emit over 25 billion tonnes of carbon equivalent; we are literally filling up the sky. Geological resources of coal could provide several hundred years of fuel, but we cannot burn them and keep within safe limits. Oil and coal development must be ended. While the basic Energy [R]evolution scenario has a reduction target for energy related CO2 emissions of 50% from 1990 levels by 2050, the advanced case goes one step further and aims for a reduction target of over 80%.
- Equity and fairness As long as there are natural limits there needs to be a fair distribution of benefits and costs within societies, between nations and between present and future generations. At one extreme, a third of the world's population has no access to electricity, whilst the most industrialised countries consume much more than their fair share.
The effects of climate change on the poorest communities are exacerbated by massive global energy inequality. If we are to address climate change, one of the principles must be equity and fairness, so that the benefits of energy services – such as light, heat, power and transport – are available for all: north and south, rich and poor. Only in this way can we create true energy security, as well as the conditions for genuine human wellbeing.
- Implement clean, renewable solutions and decentralise energy systems There is no energy shortage. All we need to do is use existing technologies to harness energy effectively and efficiently.
Just as climate change is real, so is the renewable energy sector. Sustainable decentralised energy systems produce less carbon emissions, are cheaper and involve less dependence on imported fuel. They create more jobs and empower local communities. Decentralised systems are more secure and more efficient. This is what the Energy [R]evolution must aim to create. To stop the earth's climate spinning out of control, most of the world's fossil fuel reserves – coal, oil and gas – must remain in the ground. Our goal is for humans to live within the natural limits of our small planet.
- Decouple growth from fossil fuel use Starting in the developed countries, economic growth must be fully decoupled from fossil fuel usage. It is a fallacy to suggest that economic growth must be predicated on their increased combustion. We need to use the energy we produce much more efficiently, and we need to make the transition to renewable energy and away from fossil fuels quickly in order to enable clean and sustainable growth.
- Phase out dirty, unsustainable energy We need to phase out coal and nuclear power. We cannot continue to build coal plants at a time when emissions pose a real and present danger to both ecosystems and people. And we cannot continue to fuel the myriad nuclear threats by pretending nuclear power can in any way help to combat climate change. There is no role for nuclear power in the Energy [R]evolution.
From principles to practice
In 2007, renewable energy sources accounted for 13% of the world's primary energy demand. Biomass, which is mostly used for heating, was the main renewable energy source. The share of renewable energy in electricity generation was 18%. The contribution of renewables to primary energy demand for heat supply was around 24%. About 80% of primary energy supply today still comes from fossil fuels, and 6% from nuclear power.
The time is right to make substantial structural changes in the energy and power sector within the next decade. Many power plants in industrialised countries, such as the USA, Japan and the European Union, are nearing retirement; more than half of all operating power plants are over 20 years old. At the same time developing countries, such as China, India and Brazil, are looking to satisfy the growing energy demand created by their expanding economies.