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IRENA: Renewable Energy Best Solution for Growing Global Population

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Renewable energies are increasingly seen as the best solution to a growing global population demanding affordable access to electricity while reducing the need for toxic fossil fuels that are creating unsustainable levels of greenhouse gas emissions.

That’s the underlying message of a new report—REthinking Energy: Towards a New Power System—published last week by the Abu Dhabi-based International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA).

“Rapid technological progress, combined with falling costs, a better understanding of financial risk and a growing appreciation of wider benefits, means that renewable energy is increasingly seen as the answer,” the 94-page report says.

“Not only can renewable energy meet the world’s rising demand, but it can do so more cheaply, while contributing to limiting global warming to under 2 degrees Celsius—the widely cited tipping point for climate change,” the report adds.

“A technology once considered as niche is becoming mainstream. What remains unclear is how long this transition will take, and how well policy makers will handle the change.”

The world’s population grew from four billion to seven billion people in the past 40 years, the report said, adding that population trends forecast more than eight billion people by 2030.

In the next two decades, the report noted, world electricity generation is expected to increase by 70 percent.

But the report warned that there is an environmental cost to producing the required future levels of electricity.

“There is growing consensus on the threat of climate change brought on by increasing atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, prompting worldwide efforts to reduce emissions,” the report said.

“If business continues as usual, these efforts will not succeed. The average emissions intensity of electricity production has barely changed over the past 20 years. Gains from the increasing deployment of renewables, and less intensive fossil fuels such as natural gas, have been offset by less efficient power plants and the rising use of coal. Without a substantial increase in the share of renewables in the mix, climate change mitigation will remain elusive.”

There is also increasing concern about the health impacts of burning fossil fuels, the report said, adding the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently found that ill health caused by fossil fuels nationally costs between US $362 billion and $887 billion annually.

In addition, the European Union’s Health and Environment Alliance found that emissions from coal-fired power plants cost up to EUR 42.8 billion in yearly health costs.

“Something has to change,” the report said. “Fossil fuels powered the first industrial revolution, but even in the new era of shale oil and gas, questions remain about their compatibility with sustainable human well-being. The stage is set for the era of modern renewable energy that is cost competitive, mainstream and sustainable.”

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The report said renewable energy technologies have grown more robust and more efficient in the last decade and are increasingly able to generate power even in suboptimal conditions such as low wind speeds and low solar irradiation. Energy storage technologies are improving fast, it added, while costs have plummeted.

“Worldwide, renewable power capacity has grown 85 percent over the past 10 years, reaching 1,700 GW in 2013, and renewables today constitute 30 percent of all installed power capacity,” the report said, noting the challenge today is how to finance and accelerate the continued deployment of renewables.

Total investment in renewable energy rose from $55 billion in 2004 to $214 billion in 2013 (excluding large hydropower), said the report, which also pointed out that $550 billion is needed annually until 2030 to double the global share of renewable energy and avert catastrophic climate change.

The report added that politicians have an important role to play. “If they make it clear that renewable energy will be a larger part of their national energy mix, and commit to long-term, non-financial support mechanisms, they could reduce uncertainty and attract more investors.”

Deploying renewables also stimulates economic activity, creates jobs, provides power for those left off the grid, the report said. Most renewables do not deplete finite resources and they also reduce the risk of ecological disasters.

“The changes at hand offer the potential for a new industrial revolution—creating a renewables-based system, which enhances access, health and security, creates jobs and safeguards the environment,” the report said. “The technology is ready to deploy. People, businesses and governments must now embrace its potential.”

In an accompanying media release, IRENA Director-General Adnan Amin said speeding up the adoption of renewable energy technologies is the most feasible way of reducing carbon emissions and avoiding catastrophic global warming.

“A convergence of social, economic and environmental forces are transforming the global energy system as we know it,” Amin was quoted as saying. “But if we continue on the path we are currently on and fuel our growing economies with outmoded ways of thinking and acting, we will not be able avoid the most serious impacts of climate change.”

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"This hasn't happened in 150 years or more," said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA's Institute of the Environment and Sustainability to The Guardian. "There have even been a couple [of] wildfires – which is definitely not something you typically hear about in the middle of winter."

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On Thursday, the U.S. Drought Monitor said nearly 60 percent of the state was abnormally dry, up from 46 percent just last week, according to The Mercury News in San Jose.

The dry winter has included areas that have seen devastating fires recently, including Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties. If the dry conditions continue, those areas will once again have dangerously high fire conditions, according to The Mercury News.

"Given what we've seen so far this year and the forecast for the next few weeks, I do think it's pretty likely we'll end up in some degree of drought by this summer," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported.

Another alarming sign of an impending drought is the decreased snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountain range. The National Weather Service posted to Twitter a side-by-side comparison of snowpack from February 2019 and from this year, illustrating the puny snowpack this year. The snow accumulated in the Sierra Nevadas provides water to roughly 30 percent of the state, according to NBC Los Angeles.

Right now, the snowpack is at 53 percent of its normal volume after two warm and dry months to start the year. It is a remarkable decline, considering that the snowpack started 2020 at 90 percent of its historical average, as The Guardian reported.

"Those numbers are going to continue to go down," said Swain. "I would guess that the 1 March number is going to be less than 50 percent."

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Climate Prediction Center forecast that the drier-than-average conditions may last through April.

NOAA said Northern California will continue deeper into drought through the end of April, citing that the "persistent high pressure over the North Pacific Ocean is expected to continue, diverting storm systems to the north and south and away from California and parts of the Southwest," as The Weather Channel reported.

As the climate crisis escalates and the world continues to heat up, California should expect to see water drawn out of its ecosystem, making the state warmer and drier. Increased heat will lead to further loss of snow, both as less falls and as more of it melts quickly, according to The Guardian.

"We aren't going to necessarily see less rain, it's just that that rain goes less far. That's a future where the flood risk extends, with bigger wetter storms in a warming world," said Swain, as The Guardian reported.

The Guardian noted that while California's reservoirs are currently near capacity, the more immediate impact of the warm, dry winter will be how it raises the fire danger as trees and grasslands dry out.

"The plants and the forests don't benefit from the water storage reservoirs," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported. "If conditions remain very dry heading into summer, the landscape and vegetation is definitely going to feel it this year. From a wildfire perspective, the dry years do tend to be the bad fire years, especially in Northern California."