We Are (Nearly) On Target To Save The World
Global carbon emissions are set to tumble by a few billion tons.
We have had nothing but horrific news for the past few months. It’s as if the entire world is slowly falling apart. But, hidden among all this strife and controversy, a slither of hope has shone through. You see, we are so damn close to being on course to meet one of the most significant goals set out by COP28. But, will this really make any difference in our struggle to save the planet from ourselves?
While COP28 was, at best, a farce, with fossil fuel executives, lobbyists and shareholders spilling out of every remotely important meeting, its binding end document did have some significant leaps forward. One of these milestone pledges in this document was the “Global Renewables And Energy Efficiency Pledge”, in which countries vowed to triple global renewable capacity to 11,000 GW by 2030 and double energy intensity improvements from 2% to 4% per year by 2030. These align with reports and advice from the IEA to keep global warming limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius. As such, if countries can keep to this promise, it would be a major step forward in saving the planet.
Tripling any energy source in just 7 years is hard enough. Let alone renewables, which require more land area, new, not-quite-yet-scaled technology and, in some situations, entirely new grid architecture to function efficiently. But despite this, we are already so close to meeting this target.
You see, a recent report by the IEA uncovered just how rapidly renewables are already growing. The amount of renewable capacity added worldwide grew by 50% in 2023, reaching a massive 510 GW. In fact, China alone built as much solar capacity in 2023 as the entire world did in 2022! But it isn’t as if the West has been sluggish either, with the US and Brazil hitting all-time-high rates of renewable roll-out.
According to IEA Chief Fatih Birol, the report showed that “under current policies and market conditions, global renewable capacity is already on course to increase by two-and-a-half times by 2030.” But it doesn’t end there; he even added, “It’s not enough yet to reach the COP28 goal of tripling renewables, but we’re moving closer — and governments have the tools needed to close the gap.”
In other words, this monumental goal is within our grasp. We only have to accelerate our renewable expansion by 20% over its current trajectory, and we are there. Grants, subsidies, tax breaks, planning schemes and other governmental help can easily create this.
If we hit this goal, it will have huge ramifications. It can potentially reduce global energy emissions by 35% by 2030. Our global energy sector currently accounts for 36.8 billion tonnes of carbon emissions per year. That means we are nearly on course to save 12.38 billion tonnes of carbon emissions yearly! That is a massive win for the planet.
But this figure also depends on us doubling energy intensity improvements worldwide. Which is not so simple.
To increase the efficiency of these grids, you need to add colossal grid-level batteries. These capture excess energy and then release it at times of high demand. This is particularly needed for renewables, as unlike almost every other type of energy, we can’t control when it produces energy or how much energy it produces. However, the architecture of the grid also plays a massive role in efficiency. New super-high voltage transmission lines are far more efficient than old-style ones, and increasing our use of these can significantly reduce how much energy is wasted heating miles of overhead lines. The layout makes a huge difference too, as renewable energy is far less centralised than fossil fuels, and having a grid that reflects this change can significantly reduce the distance renewable energy has to travel to get to where it is needed, increasing efficiency.
As energy efficiency is a multi-faceted problem, and the pledge has awkward wording, where it measures efficiency improvement roll-out, not actual efficiency improvement, it’s hard to say whether we are on course here. However, a recent Bloomberg report predicted that cumulative global energy storage capacity will reach 1,877 GWh by 2030.
To give some sense of scale here, the US uses 16% of the world’s energy supply, and for renewables to make up 94% of the US’s energy mix by 2050 requires 6,000 GWh of energy storage. So each year, the globe is adding enough energy storage to supply nearly a third of what the US needs by 2050. Or in other words, each year, the world is adding 5% of the energy storage it needs by 2050. At this rate, we should have reached our 2050 energy storage need by at least 2044.
So, even if we aren’t entirely on target to meet the weird energy efficiency pledge in the COP28 document, it seems we are at least on course to meet our global energy storage needs by 2050 when the world needs to be net-zero and heavily reliant on renewable energy.
We are on course to save the world. Sort of. Renewables need to be rolled out a little faster, but we can easily solve this. Grid-level energy capacity also has to be rolled out faster, as my back-of-the-envelope calculations don’t consider the limited lifespan and replacement of these energy storage installations. But again, with new, cheaper, easier to produce and more efficient battery technology already reaching commercial-scale production, this shouldn’t be too difficult to solve either. In short, our path to net-zero, and saving the world from ourselves is looking far less fraught and far more probable.
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