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These Countries Are Leading the Transition to Sustainable Energy

Energy
These Countries Are Leading the Transition to Sustainable Energy
Aerial view of a wind farm near The Øresund Bridge in Sweden on June 26, 2018. Maxym Marusenko / NurPhoto / Getty Images

By Johnny Wood

What does COVID-19 mean for the energy transition? While lockdowns have caused a temporary fall in CO2 emissions, the pandemic risks derailing recent progress in addressing the world's energy challenges.


The current state of the sector is described in the World Economic Forum's Energy Transition Index 2020. It benchmarks the energy systems of 115 economies, highlighting the leading players in the race to net-zero emissions, as well as those with work to do.

With pressure to get idle economies back to "normal," the short-term shift to a more sustainable energy sector could be in doubt. But the current crisis also presents an opportunity to rethink how our energy needs are met, and consider the long-term impact on the planet.

Unprecedented Change

The past decade has seen rapid transformations as countries move towards clean energy generation, supply and consumption. Coal-fired power plants have been retired, as reliance on natural gas and emissions-free renewable energy sources increases. Incremental gains have been made from carbon pricing initiatives.

Since 2015, 94 of 115 countries have improved their combined score on the Energy Translation Index (ETI), which analyzes each country's readiness to adopt clean energy using three criteria: energy access and security; environmental sustainability; and economic development and growth.

But the degree of change and the timetable for reaching net-zero emissions differ greatly between countries, and taken as a whole, today's advances are insufficient to meet the climate targets set by the Paris Agreement.

The 10 Countries Most Prepared for the Energy Transition

Sweden is the nation most ready to transition to sustainable energy. WEF Fostering Effective Energy Transition 2020 edition

Sweden tops the overall ETI ranking for the third consecutive year as the country most ready to transition to clean energy, followed by Switzerland and Finland. There has been little change in the top 10 since the last report, which demonstrates the energy stability of these developed nations, although the gap with the lowest-ranked countries is closing.

Top-ranked countries share a reduced reliance on imported energy, lower energy subsidies and a strong political commitment to transforming their energy sector to meet climate targets.

The UK and France are the only two G20 economies in the top 10 however, which is otherwise made up of smaller nations.

Powerful Shocks

Outside the top 10, progress has been modest in Germany. Ranked 20th, the country has committed to phasing out coal-fired power plants and moving industrial output to cleaner fuels such as hydrogen, but making energy services affordable remains a struggle.

China, ranked 78th, has made strong advances in controlling CO2 emissions by switching to electric vehicles and investing heavily in solar and wind energy - it currently has the world's largest solar PV and onshore wind capacity. Alongside China, countries including Argentina, India and Italy have shown consistent strong improvements every year. Gains over time have also been recorded by Bangladesh, Bulgaria, Kenya and Oman, among others.

But high energy-consuming countries including the US, Canada and Brazil show little, if any, progress towards an energy transition.

In the US (ranked 32nd), moves to establish a more sustainable energy sector have been hampered by policy decisions. Neighboring Canada grapples with the conflicting demands of a growing economy and the need to decarbonize the energy sector.

The COVID-19 pandemic serves as a reminder of the impact of external shocks on the global economy. As climate change increases the likelihood of weather extremes such as floods, droughts and violent storms, the need for more sustainable energy practices is intensified.

Policy-makers need to develop a robust framework for energy transition at local, national and international levels, capable of guarding against such shocks.

"The coronavirus pandemic offers an opportunity to consider unorthodox intervention in the energy markets, and global collaboration to support a recovery that accelerates the energy transition once the acute crisis subsides," says Roberto Bocca, Head of Energy & Materials at the World Economic Forum.

"This giant reset grants us the option to launch aggressive, forward-thinking and long-term strategies leading to a diversified, secure and reliable energy system that will ultimately support the future growth of the world economy in a sustainable and equitable way."

Reposted with permission from World Economic Forum.

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Cottongrass blows in the wind at the edge of Etivlik Lake, Alaska. Western Arctic National Parklands / Wikimedia Commons / CC by 2.0

By Tara Lohan

Warming temperatures on land and in the water are already forcing many species to seek out more hospitable environments. Atlantic mackerel are swimming farther north; mountain-dwelling pikas are moving upslope; some migratory birds are altering the timing of their flights.

Numerous studies have tracked these shifting ranges, looked at the importance of wildlife corridors to protect these migrations, and identified climate refugia where some species may find a safer climatic haven.

"There's a huge amount of scientific literature about where species will have to move as the climate warms," says U.C. Berkeley biogeographer Matthew Kling. "But there hasn't been much work in terms of actually thinking about how they're going to get there — at least not when it comes to wind-dispersed plants."

Kling and David Ackerly, professor and dean of the College of Natural Resources at U.C. Berkeley, have taken a stab at filling this knowledge gap. Their recent study, published in Nature Climate Change, looks at the vulnerability of wind-dispersed species to climate change.

It's an important field of research, because while a fish can more easily swim toward colder waters, a tree may find its wind-blown seeds landing in places and conditions where they're not adapted to grow.

Kling is careful to point out that the researchers weren't asking how climate change was going to change wind; other research suggests there likely won't be big shifts in global wind patterns.

Instead the study involved exploring those wind patterns — including direction, speed and variability — across the globe. The wind data was then integrated with data on climate variation to build models trying to predict vulnerability patterns showing where wind may either help or hinder biodiversity from responding to climate change.

One of the study's findings was that wind-dispersed or wind-pollinated trees in the tropics and on the windward sides of mountain ranges are more likely to be vulnerable, since the wind isn't likely to move those dispersers in the right direction for a climate-friendly environment.

The researchers also looked specifically at lodgepole pines, a species that's both wind-dispersed and wind-pollinated.

They found that populations of lodgepole pines that already grow along the warmer and drier edges of the species' current range could very well be under threat due to rising temperatures and related climate alterations.

"As temperature increases, we need to think about how the genes that are evolved to tolerate drought and heat are going to get to the portions of the species' range that are going to be getting drier and hotter," says Kling. "So that's what we were able to take a stab at predicting and estimating with these wind models — which populations are mostly likely to receive those beneficial genes in the future."

That's important, he says, because wind-dispersed species like pines, willows and poplars are often keystone species whole ecosystems depend upon — especially in temperate and boreal forests.

And there are even more plants that rely on pollen dispersal by wind.

"That's going to be important for moving genes from the warmer parts of a species' range to the cooler parts of the species' range," he says. "This is not just about species' ranges shifting, but also genetic changes within species."

Kling says this line of research is just beginning, and much more needs to be done to test these models in the field. But there could be important conservation-related benefits to that work.

"All these species and genes need to migrate long distances and we can be thinking more about habitat connectivity and the vulnerability of these systems," he says.

The more we learn, the more we may be able to do to help species adapt.

"The idea is that there will be some landscapes where the wind is likely to help these systems naturally adapt to climate change without much intervention, and other places where land managers might really need to intervene," he says. "That could involve using assisted migration or assisted gene flow to actually get in there, moving seeds or planting trees to help them keep up with rapid climate change."


Tara Lohan is deputy editor of The Revelator and has worked for more than a decade as a digital editor and environmental journalist focused on the intersections of energy, water and climate. Her work has been published by The Nation, American Prospect, High Country News, Grist, Pacific Standard and others. She is the editor of two books on the global water crisis. http://twitter.com/TaraLohan

Reposted with permission from The Revelator.

An illustration depicts the extinct woolly rhino. Heinrich Harder / Wikimedia Commons

The last Ice Age eliminated some giant mammals, like the woolly rhino. Conventional thinking initially attributed their extinction to hunting. While overhunting may have contributed, a new study pinpointed a different reason for the woolly rhinos' extinction: climate change.

The last of the woolly rhinos went extinct in Siberia nearly 14,000 years ago, just when the Earth's climate began changing from its frozen conditions to something warmer, wetter and less favorable to the large land mammal. DNA tests conducted by scientists on 14 well-preserved rhinos point to rapid warming as the culprit, CNN reported.

"Humans are well known to alter their environment and so the assumption is that if it was a large animal it would have been useful to people as food and that must have caused its demise," says Edana Lord, a graduate student at the Center for Paleogenetics in Stockholm, Sweden, and co-first author of the paper, Smithsonian Magazine reported. "But our findings highlight the role of rapid climate change in the woolly rhino's extinction."

The study, published in Current Biology, notes that the rhino population stayed fairly consistent for tens of thousands of years until 18,500 years ago. That means that people and rhinos lived together in Northern Siberia for roughly 13,000 years before rhinos went extinct, Science News reported.

The findings are an ominous harbinger for large species during the current climate crisis. As EcoWatch reported, nearly 1,000 species are expected to go extinct within the next 100 years due to their inability to adapt to a rapidly changing climate. Tigers, eagles and rhinos are especially vulnerable.

The difference between now and the phenomenon 14,000 years ago is that human activity is directly responsible for the current climate crisis.

To figure out the cause of the woolly rhinos' extinction, scientists examined DNA from different rhinos across Siberia. The tissue, bone and hair samples allowed them to deduce the population size and diversity for tens of thousands of years prior to extinction, CNN reported.

Researchers spent years exploring the Siberian permafrost to find enough samples. Then they had to look for pristine genetic material, Smithsonian Magazine reported.

It turns out the wooly rhinos actually thrived as they lived alongside humans.

"It was initially thought that humans appeared in northeastern Siberia fourteen or fifteen thousand years ago, around when the woolly rhinoceros went extinct. But recently, there have been several discoveries of much older human occupation sites, the most famous of which is around thirty thousand years old," senior author Love Dalén, a professor of evolutionary genetics at the Center for Paleogenetics, said in a press release.

"This paper shows that woolly rhino coexisted with people for millennia without any significant impact on their population," Grant Zazula, a paleontologist for Canada's Yukon territory and Simon Fraser University who was not involved in the research, told Smithsonian Magazine. "Then all of a sudden the climate changed and they went extinct."

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A quality engineer examines new solar panels in a factory. alvarez / Getty Images

Transitioning to renewable energy can help reduce global warming, and Jennie Stephens of Northeastern University says it can also drive social change.

For example, she says that locally owned businesses can lead the local clean energy economy and create new jobs in underserved communities.

"We really need to think about … connecting climate and energy with other issues that people wake up every day really worried about," she says, "whether it be jobs, housing, transportation, health and well-being."

To maximize that potential, she says the energy sector must have more women and people of color in positions of influence. Research shows that leadership in the solar industry, for example, is currently dominated by white men.

"I think that a more inclusive, diverse leadership is essential to be able to effectively make these connections," Stephens says. "Diversity is not just about who people are and their identity, but the ideas and the priorities and the approaches and the lens that they bring to the world."

So she says by elevating diverse voices, organizations can better connect the climate benefits of clean energy with social and economic transformation.

Reposted with permission from Yale Climate Connections.