Energy is at the very foundation of modern economies. Since the Industrial Revolution more than 200 years ago, all countries—if at a quite different pace—have developed on the back of the production and burning of fossil fuels. There is no doubt that the comfortable lives many of us live today would not be possible without the fossil-fueled development of the past. But the merits of fossil fuels now seem less and less convincing.
First, take subsidies. Currently, we throw about 10–12 times more taxpayer money at fossil fuels than we put into renewables—and those are just direct subsidies. In addition, local air and water pollution and related health consequences cost trillions of dollars worldwide. The U.S. National Research Council estimates the “hidden” costs of fossil fuels in the United States (the real costs to society that are not reflected in the fuels’ market prices) at $120 billion annually. The Chinese government believes pollution and related healthcare costs amount to 10 percent of that country’s GDP.
Then there is the volatility of fossil fuel markets, which has arguably led to enormous economic instability in the recent past. Just to give an idea of what this volatility means to some nations: an increase in the world oil price of just $10 can mean a decrease in the GDP of some small nations of 2–3 percent.
And finally, fossil fuels are causing what many prominent commentators—presidents, prime ministers, and secretary-generals—have called this century’s greatest problem: climate change. Nearly 70 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions come from the burning of fossil fuels. With energy use expected to double over the next two decades, it is clear we will run into an environmental, economic, and social crisis of unknown proportions if we continue to develop based on the current unsustainable energy system. In response, many, such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, believe “renewable energy should become the central pillar of our future energy supply.”
Just as the advent of 18th-century breakthrough technologies harnessing the power of coal fueled the Industrial Revolution, the development of new technologies powered by renewable resources is contributing to a modern energy paradigm shift. Renewable energy technologies offer the opportunity to power the societies of today without jeopardizing those of the future.
Falling costs is just one of many factors that should position these technologies to play an even greater role in current and future development. The high upfront costs that have long slowed renewable deployment are quickly becoming a thing of the past. Solar photovoltaic prices, for example, are predicted to further decrease by up to 40 percent by 2015 for typical commercial systems, resulting in $1 per watt systems being distributed widely by 2020, making solar PV cost competitive with energy sources such as nuclear and coal.
Sustainable energy is a driver not only of economic growth but of social development as well. The UN General Assembly has stated that “…access to modern affordable energy services in developing countries is essential for the achievement of the internationally agreed development goals, including the Millennium Development Goals, and sustainable development, which would help to reduce poverty and to improve the conditions and standard of living for the majority of the world’s population.”
With these guiding principles, the UN Secretary-General’s Sustainable Energy for All Initiative (SE4ALL) has highlighted 2012 as the International Year of Sustainable Energy for All, and will promote the development and deployment of renewable energy technologies as one of the key focus areas of the upcoming Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development.
The reliance on traditional fuels has left 1.3 billion people worldwide without access to electricity (with an additional billion people having unreliable access) and 3 billion people dependent on traditional biomass to meet their energy needs. To solve these challenges the Secretary-General’s SE4ALL group has committed itself to achieving three significant goals by 2030:
- Ensuring universal access to modern energy services
- Reducing global energy intensity by 40 percent
- Increasing renewables’ share of global energy use to 30 percent.
With the international community’s goals for renewable energy deployment being matched by falling technology prices, the world appears to be on the precipice of a systemic shift toward a sustainable future. The Worldwatch Institute’s work with the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) looks to facilitate this necessary transformation. Stay tuned for Part Two of this blog post, where we discuss the proposed Renewable Development Index and Worldwatch’s contribution to the creation of this critical metric.
Evan Musolino is a Climate and Energy Research Associate at the Worldwatch Institute, an international environmental research organization. Alexander Ochs is the Director of the Climate and Energy Program at Worldwatch.