solar panels

Early adopters of decarbonisation tech help lower cost globally for others

With carbon emissions rising again as the world recovers from the Covid-19 pandemic, researchers from University of California San Diego have found encouraging signs that emerging clean energy technologies are ramping up in key markets.

“In certain areas, adoption rates for solar and wind turbines, as well as electric vehicles, are very high and increasing every year,” researchers Ryan Hanna and David G. Victor wrote in an opinion piece.

They said that specific “niches” - whether countries, states or corporations - are pioneering the decarbonisation of the world’s economy.

“It’s important to look to niches because this is where the real leg work of decarbonisation is happening. In fact, one can think about the entire challenge of decarbonising as one of opening and growing niches for new technologies, policies and practices, which are all needed to address the climate crisis.”

Ahead of the COP26 meeting later this year, each country will report on emissions accounting for the last five years and issue new, bolder pledges to cut greenhouse gasses.

Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, global fossil fuel emissions had been rising at about one per cent per year over the previous decade. Over that same time, US fossil fuel emissions fell by about one per cent per year. However, the researchers note, that slight dip is nowhere near the decline written into the original Paris Agreement pledge by the US.

“The abundant talk in recent years about ‘the energy transition’ has barely nudged dependence on conventional fossil fuels, nor has it much altered the trajectory of CO2 emissions or put the world on track to meet Paris goals,” Hanna and Victor wrote. “Instead, policymakers should measure the real engine rooms of technological change - to niche markets.”

They point to a growing number of markets where clean technology is being deployed at rates far above global and regional averages. Norway and California, for example, are leading on electric vehicles. Ireland is leading on wind power. China has embraced electric buses and new nuclear facilities.

These markets are developing and trialling new technologies that are critical to the climate change crises because they take on relatively high-risk factors that are subsequently lowered for global markets to follow.

For example, Germany launched a massive investment in solar photovoltaics starting in 2010, which pushed down costs to make photovoltaics more politically and economically viable around the globe.

“Eliminating at least one-third of global emissions will require technologies that are, at this time, prototypes,” the researchers said. “To get more clean energy technologies deployed on a global scale requires new investments in research and development (R&D), notably in novel technologies related to electric power grids.”

These investments are strong in China, mixed in Europe and are lagging - along with other R&D expenditure - in the US.

“In the US, a new administration serious about climate change may allow for renewed pulses of spending on R&D - for example, through a prospective infrastructure bill that could gain legislative approval this autumn - as innovation is one of the few areas of energy policy bipartisan consensus,” the authors wrote.

Limiting warming to 1.5°C as per the Paris Agreement has become increasingly out of reach. Meeting the goal now requires continuous reductions in emissions of about 6 per cent annually across the whole globe.

“That is a speed and scope on par with what was delivered by global pandemic lockdowns, but previously unprecedented in history and far outside the realm of what’s practical,” the authors conclude.

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