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A person climbs a large solar panel
The IPCC says politics, not technology, is holding back clean powerImage: picture alliance/dpa

Clean start

May 9, 2011

The United Nations' top scientific panel for studying climate change has said that by 2050 the world could get close to 80 percent of its power from existing clean energy technologies. The biggest challenge is political.


More than three quarters of the world's energy could be obtained from renewable sources by 2050, according to a report released on Monday by the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The report shows that wind, water, solar and bioenergy could make up 77 percent of the world's energy use by 2050, if given sufficient public support.

That would amount to around 33% fewer greenhouse gas emissions over the next 40 years compared to business as usual projections, and a significant step towards limiting global warming to below two degrees Celsius.

Fossil fuels such as coal, gas and petroleum will continue to play a role in the energy mix of the next forty years, but their relative importance varied among over 160 energy investment scenarios investigated by the IPCC team.

IPCC Chair Rajendra Pachauri
The IPCC says its report has 'huge implications' for energy investmentImage: AP

Great potential for renewable energy

"This report has a huge implication for the manner in which energy is going to be developed and used across the globe in the years ahead," IPCC Chairman Rajendra Pachauri said at a press conference.

Wind energy, geothermal energy, direct solar energy, ocean energy, bioenergy and hydropower were the six renewable energy sources that were reviewed by the report, presented in Abu Dhabi.

Over 120 researchers worked on examining the current penetration and the potential development of these energy sources.

According to the IPCC report, about one third of the global electricity could come from direct solar energy while more than 20 percent of electricity could come from wind power.

Ocean energy, bioenergy and geothermal energy are also expected to increase - only the production of hydropower, which now makes up 16 percent of the world's electricity supply, is likely to decrease in the future.

The report expects renewable energies to grow irrespective of support. Under the 'worst case' scenario they would grow from around 13 percent of the world's energy supply to 15 by midcentury.

In 2009 the renewable energy capacity grew despite a global economic downturn.

While the use of hydropower increased by just three percent, there was a 30 percent increase in the use of wind energy and over 50 percent in the use of grid-connected photovoltaic energy.

Public policies are important

The report shows that less than 2.5 percent of the globally available technical potential for renewable energy is currently used.

Ramon Pichs, Co-Chair of the Working Group III of the IPCC which compiled the report, said political will, not technology, was the main obstacle to rapidly expanding clean power.

"The report shows that it is not the availability of the resource, but the public policies that will either expand or constrain renewable energy development over the coming decades," Pichs said.

He added that most of the 1.4 billion people without access to electricity live in developing countries where there are the best conditions for renewable energy and so these countries have an important stake in the future.

Windmill with emissions from conventional power plants in the background
The IPCC investigated over 160 energy-mix scenariosImage: picture-alliance/ ZB

Watered down?

The environmental group Greenpeace said some of the report's findings appeared to be watered down in the final issue signed off by the world's governments on Monday.

It pointed to opposition from oil-producing heavyweight Saudi Arabia and Brazil to statements about renewable energies' cost-effectiveness.

Despite this, Greenpeace's Sven Teske a contributing author to the report, was happy with the final outcome. "This will be the standard book for renewables," he said.

Christian Kjaer, member of the European Renewable Energy Council (EREC) said there were more than enough renewable energy sources to meet global energy demand.

"While the negotiations were long and arduous, the message I take home is clear: With renewables, the world will never run out of energy," he said.

Author: Elizabeth Shoo (dpa, Reuters)
Editor: Nathan Witkop

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