THE ROLE OF ENERGY IN GLOBAL WARNING

When we talk about the carbon footprint of energy, we are talking about both the electricity sector and transport.

The electricity sector contributes 35% of global GHG emissions, followed by agriculture with 24%, industry with 21%, transport with 14% and housing with 6%.

For the IPCC, the only way to keep the average temperature of the planet below 2°C is by keeping the carbon concentration at a maximum of 450 parts per million (ppm) by the year 2100 and this will only be possible if prompt and large-scale action is taken to achieve an emissions cut of between 40% and 70%.

What sector could generate such an impact? Well, the electrical sector, which will have to abandon its dependence on fossil fuels to give way to more efficient and clean sources such as renewables (hydroelectric, solar and wind power, among others).

Steps have already been taken to favor renewable sources. For example, in 2013, renewable energy covered 22% of the world’s electricity demand, according to the REN 21 report.

In this regard, the IPCC urges countries to quadruple the use of clean energy, since, if the current rate of energy consumption continues, the global temperature could increase by between 3.7 and 4.8 °C by 2100.

UNEP agrees with the IPCC, and in its 2014 Emissions Gap Report, GHG emissions have increased by more than 45% since 1990. To keep the global temperature below 2°C, emissions must be reduced by 15% by 2030 and 55% by 2050 to be on track for zero by 2100.

The ultimate goal should be to completely neutralize emissions. This means that countries must reduce their emissions as much as possible and compensate for those they generate at that date, this plus the accumulation of GHGs already in the atmosphere.

“Neutralization of carbon emissions, and ultimately net zero or climate neutrality, will be essential to ensure that the remaining cumulative emissions are safely absorbed by the planet’s infrastructure such as forests and soil,” said Adam Steiner, former UNEP Director, at the time the report was presented.

“To achieve deep decarbonization, we do not need natural gas and more efficient vehicles, but rather totally non-polluting power plants and electric vehicles whose batteries are charged in the distribution network of these plants.

The quote comes from a 2015 media article signed by Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute and the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network; Guido Schmidt-Traub, executive director of the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network; and Jim Williams, director of the Pathways to Deep Decarbonization Project.

For Sachs, Schmidt-Traub and Williams, and as far as electricity is concerned, humanity needs to limit its emissions to about 50 grams per kilowatt hour by 2050. Currently, 500 grams are generated per kilowatt hour.

The decarbonization route, according to these three authors, should be based on: 1) major advances in energy efficiency, through the use of intelligent (information-based) materials and systems; 2) totally non-polluting electricity, based on the best options available to each country (wind, solar, geothermal, hydro, nuclear and with carbon capture and storage); 3) replacement of internal combustion engines with electric vehicles, in conjunction with other steps towards electrification or the use of advanced biofuels.

For the IPCC, humanity will be able to perceive other benefits when moving towards a clean energy-based scheme.

For example, air quality will be improved with the consequent impact on human health and the availability of natural resources will be guaranteed over time, which will translate into greater energy security.

This will also lead to a change in behaviour patterns as a society, since it will migrate towards urban planning and mobility models more in line with energy efficiency.

Likewise, changes in diet must be made and food waste must be avoided because of the high energy consumption this entails. This translates into more health and therefore, less incidence of lifestyle-triggered diseases.