A shift to clean energy is now feasible owing to the plummeting costs of solar and wind power, and breakthroughs in energy storage. The total system costs of renewable energy now rival fossil fuels

A shift to clean energy is now feasible owing to the plummeting costs of solar and wind power, and breakthroughs in energy storage. The total system costs of renewable energy now rival fossil fuels

The solution to human-induced climate change is finally in clear view. Thanks to rapid advances in zero-carbon energy technologies, and in sustainable food systems, the world can realistically end greenhouse-gas emissions by mid-century at little or no incremental cost, and with decisive benefits for safety and health. The main obstacle is inertia: politicians continue to favor the fossil-fuel industry and traditional agriculture mainly because they don’t know better or are on the take.

Most global warming, and a huge burden of air pollution, results from burning fossil fuels: coal, oil, and gas. The other main source of environmental destruction is agriculture, including deforestation, excessive fertilizer use, and methane emissions from livestock. The energy system should shift from heavily polluting fossil fuels to clean, zero-carbon energy sources such as wind and solar power, and the food system should shift from feed grains and livestock to healthier and more nutritious products. This combined energy-and-food transformation would cause net greenhouse-gas emissions to fall to zero by mid-century and then become net negative, as atmospheric carbon dioxide is absorbed by forests and soils.

Reaching net-zero emissions by mid-century, followed by negative emissions, would likely secure the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5º Celsius relative to Earth’s pre-industrial temperature. Alarmingly, warming has already reached 1.1ºC, and the global temperature is rising around 0.2ºC each decade. That’s why the world must reach net-zero emissions by 2050 at the latest. The shift toward clean energy would prevent hundreds of thousands of deaths each year from air pollution, and the shift to healthy, environmentally sustainable diets could prevent around ten million deaths per year.

A low-cost shift to clean energy is now feasible for every region of the world, owing to the plummeting costs of solar and wind power, and breakthroughs in energy storage. The total system costs of renewable energy, including transmission and storage, are now roughly on par with fossil fuels. Yet fossil fuels still get government preferences through subsidies, as a result of incessant lobbying by Big Coal and Big Oil, and the lack of planning for renewable alternatives.

The key step is a massive increase in power generation from renewables, mainly wind and solar. Some downstream energy uses, such as automobile transport and home heating, will be directly electrified. Other downstream users – in industry, shipping, aviation, and trucking – will rely on clean fuels produced by renewable electricity. Clean (zero-emission) fuels include hydrogen, synthetic liquids, and synthetic methane. At the same time, farms should shift toward plant-based foods.

Asia’s continued construction of coal plants, together with ongoing deforestation in Southeast Asia, Africa, and Brazil, is putting our climate, air, and nutrition at huge and wholly unnecessary risk. In the United States, the Trump administration’s promotion of fossil fuels, despite American’s vast renewable-energy potential, adds to the absurdity. So does the renewed call by Brazil’s new populist president, Jair Bolsonaro, to develop – that is, to deforest – the Amazon.

The most urgent step now is to educate governments and businesses. National governments should prepare technical engineering assessments of their countries’ potential to end greenhouse-gas emissions by mid-century. And businesses and banks should urgently examine the technologically compelling case for clean, safe energy and food systems.

An important new study shows that every world region has the wind, solar, and hydropower potential to decarbonize the energy system. Countries at higher latitudes, such as the US, Canada, northern European countries, and Russia, can tap relatively more wind than tropical countries. All countries can shift to electric cars, and power trucks, ships, planes, and factories on new zero-carbon fuels.

This energy transition will create millions more jobs than will be cut in the fossil-fuel industries. Shareholders in companies like ExxonMobil and Chevron that refuse to acknowledge the coming energy transition will end up paying a heavy price. Their ongoing fossil-fuel investments will be stranded assets in future years.

Governments and utility commissions should require that all new power-generating capacity is zero carbon. As old fossil-fuel plants age and are shut down, they should be replaced by clean power generation on a competitive basis, for example through renewable-energy auctions. China and India, in particular, should stop building new coal-fired power plants at home, and capital-exporting countries like China and Japan should stop financing new coal-fired plants in the rest of Asia, such as Pakistan and the Philippines.

Private-sector firms will compete intensively to lower still further the costs of renewable energy systems, including power generation, energy storage, and downstream uses such as electric vehicles, electric heating and cooking, and the new hydrogen economy. Governments should set limits on emissions, and the private sector should compete to deliver low-cost solutions. Government and business together should finance new research and development to drive costs even lower.

The story with land use is the same. If Bolsonaro really thinks he’s going to bring about a Brazilian economic boom by opening the Amazon to further deforestation for soybeans and cattle ranches, he should think again. Such an effort would isolate Brazil and force the major downstream food companies, facing the threat of a massive global consumer backlash, to stop buying Brazilian products.

Consumer foods are going another way. The big news is that Burger King, in a new venture with Impossible Foods, is moving toward plant-based burgers. Impossible burgers taste just like beef burgers, but smart chemistry using plant-based ingredients allows burger lovers to savor their meal while saving the planet.

By transforming our energy and food systems, we can enjoy low-cost power and healthy, satisfying diets without ruining the environment. The high-school kids striking for climate safety have done their homework. Politicians like Trump and Bolsonaro need to do theirs or get out of the way.


Jeffrey D. Sachs, Professor of Sustainable Development and Professor of Health Policy and Management at Columbia University, is Director of Columbia’s Center for Sustainable Development and of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network. His books include The End of PovertyCommon WealthThe Age of Sustainable DevelopmentBuilding the New American Economy, and most recently, A New Foreign Policy: Beyond American Exceptionalism. This content is © Project Syndicate, 2019, and is here with permission.

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34 Comments

Jeffrey D. Sachs, Professor of Sustainable Development and Professor of Health Policy and Management at Columbia University, is Director of Columbia’s Center for Sustainable Development and of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network.

And not one mention of the population of humans on the planet.

There is plenty of room for everyone, especially in NZ. It would never be a problem because everyone can live in micro apartments, in 160 story towers. So you can see the solution is obvious, more people using clean energy, eating soy, flying hydrogen powered jets and taking electric buses. It's only an ignoramus like Trump who can't see how simple it is.

Mmmmm, yummy, you can never have enough phytoestrogens

Exactly, this is why I drink craft beers.

It sure is a long time coming, the admission that there is too many of us, and what we really need to do, while we still have a little time

The population question is being raised frequently. Just a year ago it was not.

Its still unrealistic the article fails to tell the whole story.

https://www.forbes.com/sites/michaelshellenberger/2018/04/23/if-solar-an...

Thanks, that is a good link. NZ is different - we cannot sell excess power to other countries and we cannot import it when needed - a cold, cloudy windless month. Can hydro handle the slack or does it have the same problems that having backup generation by coal and oil has in Germany?

That is a North Amereican story about them and Europe. In North America, there is a major grid distribution issue, and in some parts (PG&E in California) a breakdown in useful regulation. In Europe, there are very important security issues, also dealt with by regulation. In both cases, market pricing is inhibited. 

But in other countries, it is clearer that Sachs is right, I think.

Even in New Zealand, the issue is clearer. We are blessed with plenty of renewables. And we see very little of the upward price pressure Shellenberger talks about. New Zealand would undermine his narrative.

This is what is happening to New Zealand electricity and distribtion costs. It is actually a great story about renewables - and yet we haven't even got scale for wind or solar yet. When they come, they will not be adding cost to our systems.

btw, Sellenberger's polemic is all about 'more nuclear power' for which he advocates professionally. (And even if there were no political issues with that here, we couldn't afford a modern nuclear power plant. So his solution is not that relevant here.)

DC - Slight technical issue with that post on my computer... when i click "read more" it opens up the rest of the story then immediately follows the link due to the read more being inserted in the middle of the link I guess. Might need to edit your code so it puts the read more either before or after the link?

I see what you mean. Thanks. Hopefully sorted now.

While on the face of it that looks true, it depends on how you look at the problem. Instead of seeing the problem as one of generation and storage, it could be viewed as a mismatch between consumption and generation. You can tackle the problem from either side, ie: change consumption habits.

Electric cars could fix that. For a start there will be extra demand at night. And it would also be possible for cars to supply power back to the grid when needed.

Extra demand at night. Just what we need.

to be fair, charging electric cars after 11pm would be fine.. but we'd need more generation. Throttle the hydro right down during the day if wind and solar are abundant enough, then spin them back up as the sun goes down. If solar + storage batteries for houses become cheap it becomes a non issue, charge the house battery up during peak sunlight hours, use that to run the heat pump etc at night, and hydro and other renewables fill in the gaps. Just wont be anytime soon at the pace we replace houses, and the low minimum build standards we have.

"China and India, in particular, should stop building new coal-fired power plants at home"...

You and whose army/navy/airforce/space weaponry, Jeffrey Sachs? The usual hopelessly naive thoughts of an academic unsullied by the big bad world of nations with Other Ideas....and billions of citoyen to keep alive-alive-oh (and from their Gubmints' throats...). And that's even without going down the rabbit-hole of whether wind and solar could even do the task. Like running a smelter, to - er - Smelt the metals of which they are made....

straw-man argument Waymad - not uncommon eh?

Thanks for the article David C - thought-provoking. As Nikki Harre has pointed out for years, you have to give the punters a positive story, and this is it.

But Sachs - and most people - miss the point I keep hammering; energy underwrites money. It's not a commodity, it's a lifeblood without which there are no commodities at all. The 'cost' is irrelevant - we are depleting the fossil fuels, we are altering the biosphere by burning them, and one way or another we will end up running on renewables. There will be nothing else left. That infrastructural change has to be effected using the remaining ff, within the remaining time. It's an effort larger than anything ever globally attempted. And we're late starting.

Some of us have gone down the track, and can report that the livin' is easy.

Will it happen? I don't think so. I think the global financial system falls over when the debt gets too big to deny and when the energy isn't there to do the work. Or we fight over what's left. Doesn't mean he's wrong, though. Just means the incumbent 'winners' will attempt to keep on 'winning' for too long. Either way they're doomed - their assets will become stranded (I include every new-bought SUV in the list of what I think will be stranded assets).

Oh - and you can smelt with charcoal, or this https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_furnace :)

For a realistic academic who is a fervent believer in climate change try our own Jim Flynn. His simple point is you cannot ask the developing world to stop developing and that means some massive increases in energy production. Simple numbers: the Kwh per capita USA/China/India is 12,071/4475/1122 - who can stop India's energy growth and can they do it with just wind and solar? Same applies to Brazil, Mexico, Egypt, Nigeria, Indonesia, Pakistan - can they manage without fridges for medicines, car ownership, air-conditioning, etc?
Lets pray for significant improvements with solar & nuclear otherwise PDK will be right.

Obviously the Indians will move to America, and with AOC as president they will have socialism, which is short for social media (did you know that?) and socialism means everyone will be happy.

I'm trying to buy a hydrogen powered private jet, so I can travel the globe protesting climate change. Does anyone know a reliable dealer?
I don't drive anymore, I just use a chauffeured limo, this has drastically reduced my carbon footprint along with my vegan diet consisting of the worlds finest organic soy based foods. If everyone just followed my example we could end climate change and live a life of love.

Woke vegans can eat this rubbish, more meat for the rest of us.
"The big news is that Burger King, in a new venture with Impossible Foods, is moving toward plant-based burgers. Impossible burgers taste just like beef burgers, but smart chemistry using plant-based ingredients allows burger lovers to savor their meal while saving the planet"

"While saving the planet". Having driven to BK in a SUV no doubt sporting the latest petroleum based fabric clothing fashion. Humans are inherently stupid.

Not forgetting driven an a asphalt paved road made from...fossil fuel. Love watching the greenish young do gooders jaw drop when mentioning that fact. What do they teach the children at school?

Feasible...? - if you don't mind a bit DRC child labour with your renewable battery or renewable wind turbine. "Unless there are radical changes in the ways that cobalt and other minerals are produced, warned Amnesty’s secretary-general Kumi Naidoo, “the batteries which power green vehicles will continue to be tainted by human rights abuses”. Meeting that challenge will not be easy."
http://fortune.com/longform/blood-sweat-and-batteries/

Coming from an oil tout, that's a joke.

Iraq, Nigeria, Libya, Venezuela - show me the oil and I'll show you a dispossessed indigenous population. You'd be better not opening that can of worms......

Unlike cobalt 60% of oil doesn't come from one despot regime. Where do you get your oil and cobalt from?

No more is it looking difficult. Renewables and a sophisticated grid are coming. Best to join it - don't fight it.

That will explain why oil price futures have plummeted as its demand has been substituted by green washed renewables.

Profile sounds as desperate as the oil majors are starting to sound.

The reality is that oil possibilities are so low in the EROEI stakes, that they can't 'make money' So they're soaking Wall St and promising efficiencies tomorrow. Cicking the can.

Equally, we're not really valuing renewable infrastructure correctly, but given that they are our default future, that hardly matters.

Can't make money? You need some new straw men. "Saudi Arabia’s state oil company has emerged as the most profitable business in the world, racking up profits of $111.1bn (£84.7bn) in 2018 to overtake Apple. ...more than four times the profits of other oil industry rivals last year, including the Anglo-Dutch company Royal Dutch Shell, which made $23bn, and the US firm Exxon Mobil, which made $21bn."

Thanks for the straw man. Knew I could rely on you.

Thanks for the straw man. Knew I could rely on you.

https://paularbair.wordpress.com/2019/03/21/a-modest-suggestion-for-the-...

"Historically, new sources of energy have never substituted pre-existing ones but rather supplemented them. Coal supplanted water, wind power and biomass as the world’s dominant energy source during the Industrial Revolution, but never substituted them in absolute terms. Same thing when petroleum supplanted coal at the turn of the 20th century. We have since then continued to use more and more water, wind power and biomass, as well as more and more coal. In fact we are today using more of any energy source in absolute terms than at any time in human history, only the relative composition of our energy mix has evolved over time. The total or partial replacement this century of fossil fuels by renewable energy sources, hence, would constitute a systemic change without any precedent in human history."
In addition, when new energy sources supplanted pre-existing ones in the past, it was always because they proved to be “superior” to those in terms of energetic quality and productivity. Coal supplanted water, wind power and biomass because it proved to be a much more powerful, convenient and versatile source of energy. Petroleum then supplanted coal because it was superior still in terms of energy density, power density, fungibility, storability, transportability, ready availability, convenience and versatility of use. On all these aspects it does not appear that solar and wind energy may be in the same way “superior” to fossil fuels – but rather that they are in fact significantly “inferior”. The capture of diffuse and intermittent energy flows through man-made devices is, inherently, an imperfect substitute for the extraction and burning of concentrated energy locked up in fossil fuels. Unfortunately, no amount of “innovation” is fundamentally going to change that...

."

https://paularbair.wordpress.com/2019/03/21/a-modest-suggestion-for-the-...

contd..

The defining pattern of human history, in other words, is an endless quest and competition for more and/or better forms of energy inputs, with a view to expand and improve the outputs obtained from energy expended endo- and exo-somatically. “Economic growth” is the proxy concept commonly used to measure this rising energy and material throughput in modern, industrialised societies.
governments around the world, even democratic ones, cannot and will not mandate a fossil fuel phase out and an accelerated transition to solar and wind energy, because doing so would defy their historical function and purpose. Such a decision, if it would be adopted and enacted, would quickly prove detrimental to the material circumstances of a majority of the population. It would exacerbate tensions and dissensions in society, as various groups would keep pursuing higher energy and material throughput, which would then only be attainable at the direct expense of others. In no time, other human groups (nations) across the world would seize the opportunities to achieve higher energy and material throughput..

if or when you get frustrated of being denied the kind of change you want, embark with all the strength and enthusiasm of your youth on an “energy diet”. A big, fat, relentless and endless energy diet. Not only on Fridays, but every single day of the week, 365 days per year, for the rest of your life...

The energy diet principles

Don’t do planes. .. Don’t do cruise ships .. Don’t do cars. .. Mind what you eat...don’t do supermarkets.. Mind what you buy. .. Don’t buy anything you don’t really need. .. Mind where you live. Mind what you do online. .. Reproduce responsibly. .. Most importantly, mind what you do for a living. ,
Try to convince those around you, your friends, your parents, to go on a similar energy diet. ...

Of course, I perfectly know that if a critical mass of people around the world would follow this advice then the growth-based global economic system would collapse, condemning many to a life of poverty and insecurity.