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Robert A. Manning: Renewable energy to be vital in meeting COP21 goals

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Solar panels at the photovoltaic park in Les Mees in Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, southern France.   © Reuters

The Paris COP21 climate conference offered a ray of hope, with bold pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to slow and eventually halt global warming. But there is a long trail of broken promises in regard to mitigating climate change. The reason is less bad faith than the hard reality that the world's energy is still overwhelmingly provided by coal, oil and natural gas.

     While the use of clean energy is on the rise, more than 75% of all global energy use for electricity, industry and transportation comes from fossil fuels. Last year, more than 31 billion tons of carbon dioxide were released globally as we availed ourselves to electricity and transportation.

     The key to having any realistic chance of attaining the Paris climate conference's goal of limiting global warming to less than 2 C is accelerating the transition to a post-petroleum economy. This means pursuing an "all of the above" energy strategy -- using all current and prospective forms of nongreenhouse-gas-emitting energy: hydropower, nuclear, fusion, geothermal, biomass, biofuels, ocean tides, hydrogen fuel cells, wind and solar. Nuclear power is often omitted from the category of renewable energy, as it produces radioactive waste. But it is an important source of nongreenhouse-gas-emitting energy.

     Wind and solar are by an order of magnitude the fastest growing sources of renewable energy, though at present they supply less than 3% of the world's power. They are leading the world on a path to a post-petroleum era. But will wind and solar energy use grow fast enough to make the critical difference on climate change? A new report on renewable futures from the Atlantic Council suggests reaching this goal will be difficult but is within the realm of possibilities over the coming three decades.

     The good news is that for both wind and solar, the technology continues to improve, if incrementally, and prices are falling quite dramatically. Governments around the world -- in the U.S., European Union, Japan, China and India -- are aiding the private sector's efforts to expand their use of these renewables.

     Both the EU and U.S. plan to have 20% of their energy from renewables by 2020; the EU is shooting for 27% by 2030. One recent report projects that Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development nations will get 54% of their energy from renewables by 2040.

     Yet despite investing billions of yuan in wind and solar energy, China still relies on coal for more than 65% of its energy; India generates 70% of its electricity at coal-fired plants, and coal accounts for 51% of the country's total power usage.

     Coal is cheap and abundant. Both China and India are projected to continue to increase the use of coal during the rest of this decade. The technology to capture and store greenhouse gas emissions from coal before they enter the atmosphere exists, but carbon capture and storage is still too expensive and not fully proven, though China and the U.S. are both actively pursuing it.

     Fortunately, the price of solar and wind energy has been steadily dropping since the 1980s. Dramatic plunges have come recently. In the case of solar, vast over-production by subsidized Chinese companies is a major factor explaining why prices collapsed by 80% since 2008. The cost of producing power from wind has fallen more than 50% in the past decade. In the U.S., solar energy has grown 418% over the past five years, accounting for 38% of new electricity-generating capacity. This is up from 2010-2014, when wind accounted for 28% of new U.S. capacity.

     Though in some regions, wind and solar are cost competitive with coal and natural gas, in the U.S. and EU, government subsidies have driven the investment boom. Both wind and solar are increasingly cost competitive with coal and natural gas for electricity.

     However, there are limits. Both are intermittent technologies. When the sun is not shining or the wind blowing, they produce no energy. The key to the future of each is better, cheaper and more efficient energy storage. Indeed, batteries and other storage devices are the wild cards in a renewable future.

     Globally, billions of dollars are being invested in research and development for not just battery storage, but an array of potential energy storage technologies. Clean energy and energy storage technologies have become the darling of Silicon Valley venture capital. When Tesla Motors founder Elon Musk announced in 2014 that a Gigafactory will be built in the U.S. state of Nevada, it spurred global competition. As prices have begun to fall, energy storage deployments have soared. Musk is using existing lithium-ion battery technology licensed from Panasonic but expects to reduce costs by 30% or more by volume. The Gigafactory is to produce 50 gigawatt-hours of storage annually by 2020 -- more than the entire globe currently produces each year.

     If wind and solar energy can be effectively stored for future use, it can be more easily and effectively integrated into electrical grids and grow more cost competitive. This would spur needed investment in smart grids -- electricity supply networks that use digital communications to detect and react in real time to usage spikes and tumbles.

     Smart grids are now emerging slowly in the U.S., EU and elsewhere. If they can take hold, they could create a virtuous green cycle that would allow electric vehicles, which currently feed off coal- or gas-reliant grids, to get their charges from the sun and wind.

     Predicting when emerging technologies will become fully commercialized is a fool's errand. But around the world there is an enormous amount of research and development being carried out in energy technologies and in an array of battery and other energy storage technologies that strongly suggests the question is not if the world will transition to a post-petroleum era to one dominated by clean, renewable energy. The question is when.

     In regard to climate change, with temperatures and seas rising, glaciers melting and extreme weather patterns becoming more frequent, timing matters greatly. The commercialization of emerging solar, wind and transformational energy storage over the coming decade will be vital to mitigating these events.

     Despite the bold, ambitious climate agreement of 196 parties at COP21, people in developed countries are not willing to change their lifestyles, and those in developing countries will not sacrifice growth. This suggests that the world will only reach the door of a post-petroleum era by making major investments in renewable energy and new energy technologies, by exercising far greater global cooperation and by coming up with transformational technologies.

     The COP21 accord provides a solid framework and importantly, a process, some of which is legally binding. But to limit warming to "well under 2 C," not to mention the aspirational goal of 1.5 C will require a complete phasing out of the use of fossil fuels by 2050. That is the only way the ultimate midcentury goal of net emission neutrality -- that is zero net emissions -- can be achieved.

     In that regard, perhaps the most important outcome of COP21 was the announcement by Microsoft founder Bill Gates that he and other tech moguls were creating a multibillion dollar fund to support research into new clean energy technologies.

     Perhaps more than any other actors, how successful the U.S. and China, who account for one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions, are in meeting their respective commitments to reduce emissions will be crucial. In a U.S.-China joint climate agreement announced in November last year, Washington pledged to cut emissions 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2025. Chinese President Xi Jinping announced a target of reaching peak emissions by 2030.

     To achieve these goals, the U.S. is pursuing a clean power plan aimed at cutting emissions from power plants, and is raising auto mileage standards to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025 for all cars, among other steps. For China pollution from coal is critical, and the U.S.-China accord involves stepping up cooperation to develop carbon capture and storage technology, which could result in clean coal production.

     Absent such advances, only modest progress in slowing climate change is likely -- regardless of stated intentions and unenforceable commitments. Given the potential consequences, the agenda cited above acquires a true urgency.

Robert A. Manning is a senior fellow of the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council.

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