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Researchers: The World Could Go Green by 2050

The technological capability exists for the entire world to be powered with renewable energy, researchers have found. It's the political willpower that's in question.

by / November 24, 2015

At the beginning of December, world leaders will gather in Paris to talk about limiting carbon emissions. But according to a team of university researchers, it would be possible for them to do a whole lot more than limit greenhouse gases — by 2050, according to a draft study, the world could all but eliminate them.

The study asserts that a transition to entirely renewable electricity generation and battery- and hydrogen-powered cars is possible by 2050. What’s more, the transition would create more jobs in wind, water and solar than it would eliminate in coal, petroleum and natural gas. According to the researchers, the construction of renewable energy generators along with the continued operation of that infrastructure would create more than 50 million jobs from 2015 to 2050, while losses from the fossil fuel and nuclear energy industries would total about 28 million.

Mark Jacobson, director of Stanford University’s Atmosphere/Energy Program and lead author of the study, said the idea is to simply show people that a clean energy future is possible.

“From a technical and economic point of view, it can definitely happen,” Jacobson said. “But then there’s this social and political view of will it happen, given social and political barriers? And that I can’t predict.”

The timeline calls for the world to transition to at least 80 percent wind, water and solar by 2030. But that’s far above what world leaders are currently planning. Countries have submitted plans to the United Nations for reducing greenhouse gas emissions ahead of the Conference of Parties in Paris this December, with many of even the most optimistic plans calling for moves less dramatic than what Jacobson and his co-authors described. Ethiopia’s plan, which the group Climate Action Tracker rates as being one of the few “sufficient” plans for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, calls for a 64 percent reduction of emissions below business-as-usual estimates by 2030. The U.S. has pledged to cut its emissions to at least 26 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.

But part of the problem, Jacobson said, is a lack of knowledge about whether a wholesale transition to clean power is even feasible.

“I think our work does reduce a social and political barrier to show that it is possible, from a technical and economic point of view, to transition,” he said. “Because before, there was a lot of hand wringing saying, 'We don’t know if it’s possible, we don’t know if the grid will remain stable, we don’t know how much land it will take up.'”

The report answers each of those questions. The researchers also estimated that the necessary infrastructure could be built using about 1 percent of the earth’s land while simultaneously freeing up land used for the extraction of fossil fuels and for legacy power plants.

The clean energy of the future, the researchers wrote, could consist of 61.3 percent solar power — most of which would be utility-scale photovoltaic arrays — 32.3 percent wind power, 4.8 percent hydroelectric and less than a percent each of geothermal and tidal energy.

One big factor working in favor of a transition to renewables, Jacobson said, is the simple math on the efficiency of energy generation. Fossil fuels just aren’t efficiency sources of energy, he said.

“When you burn gasoline, for example, you lose 80 percent of the energy in gasoline to heat,” he said. “It’s not actually used to move the car.”

It also takes energy to mine the oil, refine it and transport it. Whereas with a wind turbine, the wind is just there, blowing for free without any human effort needed to propel it. The main losses are in transmitting and distributing the energy the wind turbine produces.

In Jacobson’s clean energy future, cars would see the most dramatic increases in efficiency. An electric car would reap multiple efficiency benefits because it wouldn’t be burning fossil fuels and it wouldn’t be drawing electricity from fossil fuel-based sources.

“You reduce your electricity demand by a power of three in the case of electric vehicles,” Jacobson said.

Getting the world to this hypothetical future would mean a cornucopia of commitments from all levels of government, including:

  • expanding energy efficiency standards and building codes;
  • increasing renewable portfolio standards;
  • ramping up tax credits for wind, water and solar power projects;
  • streamlining permitting processes for renewable energy projects;
  • forcing the retirement of legacy power plants;
  • creating incentives for heat and power storage;
  • promoting public transit;
  • increasing the availability of public transit as well as biking and walking paths; and
  • adopting zero-emission standards for new vehicles.

All of that takes a lot of political will. But Jacobson noted that that isn’t impossible to muster, either.

“Some places are doing it,” he said. “Like in Norway, they’re more than 50 percent of the way there already.”

Ben Miller Associate Editor of GT Data and Business

Ben Miller is the associate editor of data and business for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.

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