This is part of a series on the Global Goals for Sustainable Development, in collaboration with the Stockholm Resilience Centre. This article focuses on goal 7 –  Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all

Goal 7 of the Sustainable Development Goals is ambitious: Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all. This must be accomplished without compromising Goal 13 on addressing climate change. This is achievable.

In spite of ups-and-downs and outright shocks in the global economy – some quite recent – the economic success stories of the industrialized countries are role models for the countries that are still developing. This puts the entire global community in the dichotomous position of needing to fire up the engine of growth, without producing the greenhouse gases it has been emitting since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. What is the answer?

SDGsSource: Jakob Trollbäck 

Very few questions in the complex area of energy and climate change can have a simplistic answer, but I am going to attempt one here: decarbonization, namely, drastic reduction of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions per unit of economic activity.

Carbon dioxide is the main greenhouse gas and contributor to climate change, with the largest source coming from our use of fossil fuels to drive development. Carbon dioxide emissions have increased exponentially since 1850 at about 2% per year, while decarbonization of the global economy is only around 0.3% per year. The 2012 Global Energy Assessment, in which IIASA played a leading role, puts the current decarbonization rate at approximately six times too low to offset the increase in global energy use of about 2% per year.

1509B02-energy-from-coal-chart

To meet the goal of the 2009 climate agreement (the Copenhagen Accord), namely, the scientific view that the increase in global temperature should be below 2°C to prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system, global net emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases will need to approach zero by the second half of this century, implying deep, deep decarbonization rates.

Back in 1993, I wrote: “The possibility of less carbon-intensive and even carbon-free energy as major sources of energy during the next century is consistent with the long-term dynamic transformation and structural change of the energy system.”

My view in 2015 is the same; however, the scientific community 22 years later has a much better understanding of the decarbonization challenge and how it can be addressed. Below is a 10-step approach to the removal of carbon from the global economy:

  1. Change attitudes

Attitudes to energy use are based on many factors, from cultural norms to overall infrastructure design. We need much greater political will to affect a change in attitudes. It is critical that policy interventions should communicate to citizens the ethical notion of improved well-being and health now and for future generations of a zero-carbon economy.

  1. Transform governance

The transformation needed this century is more fundamental than previous transformations, like the replacement of coal by oil, because of the significantly shorter time needed to achieve it. Thus, government policies are essential, and are needed particularly in changing buildings codes, fuel efficiency standards for transportation, mandates for the introduction of renewables and carbon pricing.

  1. Improve energy efficiency

More efficient provision of energy services, or doing more with less, and radical improvements in energy efficiency, especially in end use, will reduce the amount of primary energy required and represents a cost-effective, near-term option for reducing carbon dioxide emissions, as well as having multiple benefits in different areas of life.

  1. Ramp up renewable use

We can show that the share of renewable non-fossil energy from solar, wind, rain, tides, waves and geothermal sources in global primary energy could increase from the current 17% to between 30% and 75%. In some regions it could exceed 90% by 2050, provided that public attitudes change and efficiency increases.

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  1. Reduce global energy intensity

The energy intensity in the industrial sector in different countries is steadily declining due to improvements in energy efficiency and a change in the structure of the industrial output. Far greater reductions are feasible by combining these improvements with adoption of the best-achievable technology.

  1. Use known technologies

Carbon capture and storage (CCS), now being piloted, is a pathway that leads to decarbonization with continued use of fossil energy. It requires reducing costs, supporting scale-up, assuring carbon storage integrity and environmental capability, and securing approval of storage sites. Nuclear energy could make a significant contribution in some parts of the world, or it could be phased out as, for instance, in Germany.

  1. Improve buildings

Retrofitting buildings can reduce heating and cooling energy requirements by 50-90%; new buildings can be designed and built using close to zero energy for heating and cooling. Passive energy houses and those that produce energy onsite are another great opportunity to achieve vigorous decarbonization. In conjunction with compatible lifestyles oriented toward rational energy use, efficient buildings are an important decarbonization option.

  1. Cut transport carbon

A major transformation of transportation is possible over the next 30–40 years and will require improving vehicle designs, infrastructure, fuels and behaviour. Electrically powered transportation reduces final energy use by more than a factor of three over gasoline-powered vehicles. A shift toward collective mobility is an essential option. This also implies behavioural changes and new business models like car-sharing and self-driving cars to replace individual mobility.

  1. Clean industrial processes

Overall, global industry efficiency is only 30%. Improved energy efficiency in industry results in significant energy productivity gains and, in turn, improved productivity boosts employment and corporate competitiveness. A shift towards low to zero emission energy sources in industry is another important and much-needed change. For example, with an aggressive renewables strategy, near-zero growth in GHG emissions in the industrial sector would be possible. Finally, decarbonization would also involve changes of industrial processes, for example, from high to low temperatures.

  1. Stranded assets and derisking renewables

The flow of investment needs to be changed away from fossil fuels and towards, efficiency, renewables, decarbonization of fossil energy sources, and especially efficient end-use in buildings, transport and industry. Sustainable energy futures require relatively high up-front investments with the benefit of low long-term costs. They are attractive in the long run, but the up-front investments need derisking and other forms of support, such as feed-in tariffs.

Author: Nebojsa Nakicenovic, Deputy Director General, International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), Austria and Co-Chair of Future Earth’s Global Carbon Project

Guest editor of this series is Owen Gaffney, Director, International Media and Strategy, Stockholm Resilience Centre and Future Earth

Image: Cooling towers and smoke stacks are seen at the coal powered Pocerady power station near Louny, Czech Republic, November 24, 2009. REUTERS/Petr Josek