Global Energy Transition To Green Will Not Be A Cakewalk

It is an axiomatic truth to say that the world is quite richer today than it had ever been. Measuring indices such as increased Gross Domestic Product (GDP), poverty reduction, agricultural modernization and mechanization, reduced infant mortality, functional healthcare all testify to this axiom. Without mincing words, the industrial revolution of the 19th century kicked started human and social development on a colossal scale and has sustained it globally.

Even though social progress that has greatly diminished global extreme poverty has been recorded, one of the two great global tasks requiring urgency is to eradicate extreme poverty among the 3 billion peoples of the world which Africa as a continent accounts for close to 800 million people. The second is to contain the grave challenges current industrialization and future industrialization for late-developing economies pose to our world. In the scientific world, it is still being debated if anthropogenic forcing- human activities such as burning of fossil fuels- is the greatest component of global warming that is defined as the rise in the surface temperature of the earth. Although the climate changes every now and then as scientists have made us to believe, and the earth has slightly warmed within the last century and a half, the debate around the science of climate change centres on the correlation of increased carbon dioxide emissions with temperature rise. While some scientists have continued to remind us that correlation isn’t causation, what is incontestable is the continuous increase in carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere since the beginning of the industrial revolution. And so, carbon dioxide’s property of being a greenhouse gas (a gas that strongly absorbs infrared radiation), calls for serious caution in the use of fossil fuels.

The task of lifting about 3 billion people out of extreme poverty may rest more at the doorsteps of individual nations with the world’s extreme poor. If industrialization, universal basic education, agricultural mechanization, science and technology, research and development are vigorously pursued through policymaking, execution and implementation, there is bound to be an astronomical reduction in the incidence of extreme poverty. China for example, through smart policies, lifted more than 850 million people out of extreme poverty; culminating in a fall in poverty percentage to 0.5 in 2016 from 88 in 1990 according to the data from the World Bank.

Based on the effect of global warming, the need to promote and implement energy policies that will result in the reduction in the emissions of carbon dioxide is of utmost importance. Therefore it may require transitioning from conventional and dirty energy sources to renewable energy sources. Renewable energy sources have been promoted because they don’t pollute our environment. Out of the renewable energy technologies, the two that have enjoyed global advertisement, publicity, patronage and public support from energy policy makers, government and climate scientists are wind and solar. Fossil fuel-enabled energy sources which are from coal, oil and natural gas, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are to be phased out if our climate is to be habitable in the future. But the determination of their cost, efficiency and the geopolitics associated with these green technologies will help in understanding the feasibility of effecting energy transition.

Talking about the cost, about $15 trillion according to BloombergNEF is to be invested globally in the new power capacity within the next 3 decades if we are to transit from fossil fuels sources to green energy sources. Renewables will gulp a whopping 80% of the total cost. There are also steep environmental cost associated with mining of minerals and metals needed for the production of wind turbines and blades and solar photovoltaic. This is definitely not a cheap cost that developing economies can afford.  According to Bjorn Lomborg’s book titled ‘False Alarm’, New Zealand, a country that wishes to go carbon neutral by 2050 has found out through an independent cost estimate that the cost of cutting emissions to zero in 2050 will gulp between 16% and 32% of annual GDP.

Solar and Wind technologies which are the world appears to have picked may not be the most effective choices. Their intermittency shows that they are not reliable and cannot be used as base load power supply. Yes, we have been inundated with many talks that their technology prices have reduced to the extent that the levelized cost of energy for solar and wind has become competitive with natural gas fired plant. This may be true, but when the price for storage is considered, which a big deal, the cost is far from being competitive. Also not worth forgetting is the fact that tax credits and other subsidies have greatly benefited wind and solar. When the wind stops blowing and when the sun goes down, their vulnerabilities are quite magnified which makes them highly undependable.

We aren’t yet ready for the geopolitics concerning transition to green energy. Figuring out the areas of concentration for the rare earth metals needed put few countries at the advantage of controlling world supply and production. As we know for a fact, this can be used as a political weapon. Chile, Argentina and Bolivia have over 50% of lithium reserve. And China controls more than 80% of all rare earth resources which wind turbine components and electric vehicles are made from according to the US Energy Resource Governance Initiative. Therefore going the renewable road globally will come with the emergence of a ‘Green Tiger’ which is China.

Therefore rather than depend predominantly on green technology, adding other clean and sustainable energy technologies such as nuclear power, hydroelectric and geothermal, carbon capture and sequestration, will erase all the vulnerabilities of wind and solar. It is quite understandable that some of the much needed technologies are far from achieving monumental breakthrough, funding for research and development appears to be the key to solving global warming. And the technologies that would help in generating energy in conformity to net zero emissions by mid-century are in all likelihood a mix of green, clean, and sustainable.

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