A low carbon society is achievable. This was the message given many times over at coinciding workshops of the European Environmental and Sustainable Development Advisory Councils (EEAC), and the Coalition of Energy Savings on 4 October 2011.
Not only can renewable energy systems entirely replace fossil fuel and nuclear energy, and fulfill the anticipated demand in 2050, but by implementing the forthcoming Energy Efficiency Directive, we also have the opportunity to cut-back dramatically on energy imports, and speed-up CO2 emission reductions. What with the Energy Roadmap 2050, and its commitment to greenhouse gas emissions reductions of 80 – 95 per cent below 1990 levels, due to be adopted on 13 December 2011, it couldn’t be more timely to consider the appropriate policy mix of technology choices, infrastructure options and planning policy beyond 2020.
Transformations in Energy, Land Use and Urbanisation
At Transitions to a Low Carbon Energy System, EEAC addressed different aspects of a fundamental transformation of the energy system. For example, Prof. Dr. Olav Hohmeyer of Der Sachverständigenrat für Umweltfragen (the Advisory Council on the Environment in Germany, SRU) presented the Cost-Optimized Pathways to 100% Renewable Electricity by 2050, stating that, it is possible for the EU to transform its electricity supply to 100 per cent renewables by 2050. Whilst for Member States like Germany, this is even possible by 2030 ‘if necessary’, for regions like Catalonia, where only three per cent of its energy comes from renewable sources, this is a big ask. But it is exactly what they are attempting, including the decommissioning of three nuclear power stations by 2020(!).
And despite what you’re thinking, the economic cost of such a decarbonisation of energy systems would amount to just a few per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) in the long term. The short-term prospects aren’t too bad either. In fact, the scenario proposed by SRU suggests that for 2050, energy prices would range from €0.041 to €0.114 per kWh with an average of €0.065 per kWh. This is up to 50 per cent cheaper than the current energy prices – the average among EU (27) countries, according to Eurostat, being €0.121 per kWh in the first half of 2011.
One question often raised is whether, by reliance on renewable energy, it is possible to maintain a high enough supply at times of high user activity, and over night. In order for this to be possible, greater transmission and storage is necessary. But greater interconnection between Member States and Europe’s neighbours on its own isn’t enough. According to SRU, whilst Norway’s onshore wind and pumped storage offers significant reservoir potential, it also found that North African countries, like Egypt, would be a net importer of electricity from Europe by 2050 without better demand-side management. The largest transformations will be required in the principal areas of energy, land-use and urbanisation.
Obviously, the transformation within the energy sector – the single biggest sectoral contributor to greenhouse gas emissions – has to move away rapidly from fossil fuels, but also, according to the SRU, away from nuclear energy. Although nuclear energy production is carbon-free, because new nuclear reactors hinder the expansion of renewable energy systems and undermine energy efficiency measures, and because Europe’s entire electricity needs is possible through renewable energy sources, such questionable technologies are not needed and divert funding away from renewable technologies.
With regard to land-use, the aims were to stop deforestation, create a low-carbon agriculture industry, and alter nutrition habits so that less meat is consumed. Preventing deforestation is becoming more and more essential as, due to climate change, arable land becomes less available due to soil degradation and increasing water shortage. The WBGU stresses that there are technologies ready to be used to reduce greenhouse gases being released through agriculture, it is now just a matter of using these effectively. The aim that is potentially the most difficult to promote to a civil society audience is the need to cut down our perceived need for animal products. Is it really that hard to avoid eating meat every single day?
As it is projected that as many people will live in cities in 2030 as there are on Earth today, increased urbanisation also necessitates the need for sustainable housing. To this end, and because buildings account for almost half of final energy consumption, and more than 35 per cent of CO₂ emissions, all new housing built within the European legislation to be ‘virtually carbon-neutral’ by 2020. Yet, here again, many argue that this is not enough. With a replacement rate of just 1 – 1.5 per cent per year, the existing stock of buildings will be around for decades, hence the perceived importance of ‘retrofitting’ of old homes to make them more efficient as well.
The Low Carbon Energy System presentations also highlighted some of the road blocks to a low carbon future, namely: lack of coherent policy direction, and vested interests in industry, particularly in the Netherlands. That may soon be remedied by the adoption of the Energy Roadmap 2050, though there is some lively discussion concerning whether it will go far enough. Helen Donoghue from the European Commission’s DG Energy didn’t give anything away when she said ‘political leaders were demonstrating strong leadership,’ and that the Roadmap conclusions were still being debated by top officials.
There are sure to be many additional difficulties along the way. One participant demonstrated a problem in communication: while it may be possible for Norway to produce and store enough renewable energy to be ‘the battery of Europe’, it is less clear how committed Norway is to this – a Norwegian attaché present in the audience pointed out that Norway was open to talking to anyone about this, but as yet, no one had approached them.
An Estimated Three Million, Green-Collared Jobs
Another necessary action to be taken by Member States and energy companies is improving energy efficiency. The Energy Efficiency Directive, still in the drafting stages, was the subject of a Parliamentary Panel discussion with the Coalition for Energy Savings also attended by QCEA. The argument in favour of the directive is that a 20 per cent improvement in energy saving would save, annually, the equivalent of approximately €1000 per household. That’s up to €78 billion annually, by 2020. Furthermore, it was said that only 6000 jobs could be created through oil by 2020 within the EU, compared to an estimated three million valuable and skilled green-collar jobs through energy efficiency savings. Given that every year, each EU citizen pays around €700 for foreign fuel imports, and the cost of generating a kWh of electricity is 70 to 170 times the cost of “saving” a kWh through efficiency, it is emphatically clear efficiency savings isn’t getting the attention it duly deserves. What’s more, countries and regions which make early progress towards greater energy efficiency and effective deployment of alternative energy will strengthen their competitive position, whilst those which muddle along and delay the transformation will find that their competitive position is eroded.
The overwhelming message from these workshops was that a low carbon future is entirely possible. Not only is it realistic for efficiency savings and renewable energies to make a decisive contribution to climate change mitigation, but the countries that harness the power of a clean, low carbon future will lead the 21st century.
In the EEAC workshop, the emphasis was on transmission and storage, both within the EU, and in coordination with its neighbours, as well as for dramatic transformations in energy, land use and urbanisation. In the Parliamentary panel, it was about specific initiatives, demonstrating decisive leadership towards a low carbon future. Overall, the message was clear – this can be done. And we’ve no time to waste.