By the end of the century, the global average temperature could rise by more than 4°C (1). While this statistic may not sound particularly dramatic, climate change already affects many regions of the world. Consequences of increased fossil fuels in the atmosphere include intense heat, increased precipitation and tropical storms, and entire regions of the world submerging as glaciers and ice caps melt. The entire world population will be touched in some way, the poor disproportionately so.
The scope of damage of climate change largely depends on how successfully we can mitigate it through emission reduction. For instance, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), like most scientific predictions, has several models predicting world temperature in 2100. Ranging from the lowest emission scenario to the highest, the EPA’s charts show a range of environmental outcomes depending on how successful countries are in cutting emissions (2). The majority of the scientific community agrees that temperatures must not rise above 2°C to avoid the worst outcomes, but the highest emissions projections predict a raise of twice that. To avoid this, policymakers must work with industry to transition to clean energy sources, like renewables: energy collected from sources that are naturally replenished within a human lifetime, such as sunlight, wind, rain, waves, tides and geothermal energy.
As of this year, renewable sources now have a greater capacity to generate energy than coal, the second-largest world energy source (3). Clearly, renewable energy is the key to powering sustainable growth and avoiding the most dramatic climate outcomes in the future. However, the transition away from fossil fuels is a gradual process, though one that is speeding up as politicians and corporations face international and public opinion pressure, energy insecurity.
The adoption of the Paris Agreement at COP21 last year marked a new level of international cooperation to fight climate change; 195 countries agreed to a legally binding agreement to cut emissions (4). Industrialized countries committed to more dramatic reductions while developing countries were encouraged to do what they could to make growth sustainable.
As the self-proclaimed leader on global climate governance, with the largest connected and installed solar and wind capacity in the world, the EU has committed to some of the most drastic reductions. Aside from the agreement, it aims to reduce emissions by no less than 40% by 2030 in its 2030 climate & energy framework. To do so, the framework also strives to raise renewables to a 27% share of energy and improve energy efficiency by 27% (5). In addition to mitigating climate change, this initiative will make energy more affordable, increase EU energy security by lowering its reliance on fuel imports, contribute to growth and jobs and improve air quality.
Within the EU, Norway, Iceland, Austria and Sweden lead the way for renewable energy, generating more than 60% of gross electricity consumption using renewable sources (6). In fact, in 2014 Norway generated more electricity from renewables than its total electricity consumption, allowing it to export energy to its neighbors through interconnected grids (7). Most of this electricity comes from hydropower, although wind and thermal energy also have a share (8).
While Norway – and Scandinavian countries in general – has unique geographic endowments that facilitate the use of renewables, other European countries emphasize the development of this sector as well. Among large, industrial countries, Germany is a pioneer due to its eco-friendly culture that encourages investment in solar and wind energy, its main sources of renewables. Specifically, Germans seek to reduce nuclear energy use, especially after the Chernobyl and later Fukushima disasters, but cutting emissions is also a top priority. Germany is pioneering a policy initiative called energiewende, an overarching transition to renewable energy that has the support of 92% of the public (9). Even before COP21, Germany had the ambitious goal of generating at least 80% of its energy using renewables by 2050, a huge increase from 27% in 2014.
Germany is an extreme example, but all countries in the EU and the world must make adjustments to meet emission reduction targets. Luckily, technological advances make the use of solar, wind and other renewable energy much more feasible, economical and popular. Big data – “new methods of processing vast existing troves of digital information, previously unseen and unused, in a way that maximized efficiency” – promises to increase the amount of energy that existing solar panels and wind turbines can produce (10). For example, by analyzing data from weather stations, wind turbines, deforestation maps, weather modeling research, tidal phases and geospatial and sensor data, wind energy companies can maximize turbine efficiency, “squeezing every last drop of potential from the existing equipment” (11). Leaders in the energy sectors have shown a keen interest in the potential of big data; GE, Siemens and Vestas, a Danish energy company, have all undertaken pilot projects in this sphere.
European companies see big data as a potential technology to save their lead in the sector as the US and China catch up, but the global potential impact of big data is much broader. By increasing energy efficiency overall and reducing the costs associated with wind, solar and other renewable energy, big data can make renewables a more feasible option for developed and developing countries alike. In the past, high entry costs have limited the popularity of clean energy; both consumers and governments hesitate to adopt technologies that will cost more than fossil fuels and thus limit development and GDP growth. However, big data promises to increase wind outputs by around 20% with little cost, merely boosting efficiency (12).
Combined with a slew of other technological advances in the renewables sector, big data is chipping away at the traditional argument of developing countries against emissions reduction: that it will stunt their growth. Western countries, they argue, had the freedom to burn coal unchecked while their economies boomed, and it is unfair to deny them the chance to industrialize in turn.
Today, however, technology allows for smarter, sustainable growth. During the first wave of industrialization in the nineteenth century, renewable energy was not even an option; today, it grows more and more sophisticated each year. As ex-World Bank development specialist Charles Kenny noted in Bloomberg, it is out of the question to demand that the world’s poor sacrifice development for climate change mitigation (13). In most cases, fossil fuels remain the cheapest and most reliable sources of energy to power economic growth and raise living standards. Accordingly, global emissions between 2000 and 2010 increased more quickly than in previous decades, mainly from rapidly industrializing countries like China (14).
And yet, developing countries can and must strive to lower emissions. They will be disproportionately affected by climate change; if nothing else, being forced to spend on mitigation and adaptation will take away from growth. And furthermore, there is no way to avoid a disastrous future without the cooperation of developing countries on emission reduction.
In order to facilitate sustainable development powered by renewable energy around the world, rich Western countries at the vanguard of innovation in the renewable sector should facilitate technology transfers and investment in renewable infrastructure in the developing world. Take the EU: its trailblazing in this sphere is admirable, but hardly enough to stave off climate disaster if the rest of the world does not cooperate. In 2013, the top ten emitters of CO2 in the world included only two Western countries, and fewer than half were developed nations: the top emitter was China, followed by the U.S., India, Russia, Japan, Germany, Iran, Korea, Saudi Arabia and Brazil (15). Clearly, to address this issue in any comprehensive way, we must tackle it globally – whether this approach will be successful remains to be seen.
(1) “Future of Climate Change.” US Environmental Protection Agency, n.d. https://www.epa.gov/climate-change-science/future-climate-change. Accessed 6 November 2015.
(3) Walker, Andrew. “Renewable energy capacity overtakes coal.” BBC News, 25 October 2016. http://www.bbc.com/news/business-37767250. Accessed 6 November 2016.
(4) “Paris Agreement.” European Commission, 8 November 2016. https://ec.europa.eu/clima/policies/international/negotiations/paris/index_en.htm. Accessed 8 November 2016.
(5) “2030 climate & energy framework.” European Commission, 8 November 2016. https://ec.europa.eu/clima/policies/strategies/2030/index_en.htm. Accessed 8 November 2016.
(7) “Proportion of electricity generated from renewable sources, 2014.” Eurostat, 28 July 2016. http://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php/File:Proportion_of_electricity_generated_from_renewable_sources,_2014_(%25_of_gross_electricity_consumption)_YB16.png. Accessed 7 November 2016.
(8) “Renewable energy production in Norway.” Government.no, 11 May 2016. https://www.regjeringen.no/en/topics/energy/renewable-energy/renewable-energy-production-in-norway/id2343462/. Accessed 8 November 2016.
(9) Kunzig, Robert. “Germany Could be a Model For How We’ll Get Power in the Future.” National Geographic, 15 October, 2015. http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2015/11/climate-change/germany-renewable-energy-revolution-text. Accessed 8 November 2016.
(10) Keating, Dave. “Big data is about to transform renewable energy.” DW, 28 Oct 2016. http://www.dw.com/en/big-data-is-about-to-transform-renewable-energy/a-36189374. Accessed 5 November 2016.
(13) Kenny, Charles. “Poor Countries Shouldn’t Sacrifice Growth to Fight Climate Change.” BloombergBusinessweek, 29 August 2014. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2014-08-29/poor-countries-shouldn-t-sacrifice-growth-to-fight-climate-change. Accessed 8 November 2016.
(15) Boden, Tom and Bob Andres. “Ranking of the world’s countries by 2013 total CO2 emissions from fossil-fuel burning, cement production, and gas flaring.” Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, n.d. http://cdiac.ornl.gov/trends/emis/top2013.tot. Accessed 8 November 2016.
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