(CN) – Transitioning to 100 percent renewable energy could be cheaper and easier than expected, according to a new study that offers detailed roadmaps for the 139 nations responsible for more than 99 percent of carbon dioxide emissions worldwide.
The looming threat of global warming to health, safety and the ultimate survival of humanity prompted researchers to forecast possible solutions and timelines for shifting global energy consumption toward renewable sources.
A report published Tuesday in the journal Joule offers a thorough and specific vision for the world’s leading producers of greenhouse gas emissions, relying on infrastructure changes and the electrification of all energy sources.
Such adjustments would lead to a net increase of more than 24 million long-term jobs, 4 to 7 million fewer deaths each year and savings of at least $20 trillion in climate and health care costs.
“Our findings suggest that the benefits are so great that we should accelerate the transition to wind, water, and solar, as fast as possible, by retiring fossil-fuel systems early wherever we can,” said co-author Mark Delucchi, a research scientist at the Institute of Transportation Studies, at the University of California, Berkeley.
The team analyzed the raw renewable energy resources available to each of the 139 nations, and estimated the number of water, wind and solar generators needed to become 80 percent renewable by 2030 and 100 percent by 2050.
“Both individuals and governments can lead this change. Policymakers don't usually want to commit to doing something unless there is some reasonable science that can show it is possible, and that is what we are trying to do,” said lead author Mark Z. Jacobson, director of Stanford University’s Atmosphere and Energy Program and a co-founder of the Solutions Project, a nonprofit that educates policymakers and the public about a transition to 100 percent clean, renewable energy.
The report examines each nation’s transportation, industrial, heating and cooling, forestry, agriculture and fishing sectors and uses publicly available data from the International Energy Agency. The researchers also looked at how much rooftop space renewable energy generators would require – about 1 percent of the total available area – and compared projected costs with a business-as-usual scenario.
Among the nations reviewed, the team found that those with a greater share of land per population – such as the United States, China and the European Union – would be the most capable of transitioning to 100 percent solar, water and wind energy. Small, highly populated nations face the greatest challenges in making such changes.
The roadmaps suggest a variety of collateral benefits as well. For example, moving from gas, oil and uranium sources would also eliminate the energy needed to transport, mine and refine these fuels – reducing international power demand by about 13 percent, according to the study. As electricity is more efficient than burning fossil fuels, demand should go down another 23 percent.
These renewable sources would also allow nations to become less dependent on one another for fossil fuels, reducing the frequency of international conflicts over energy. And communities living in energy “deserts” would have access to significant renewable power.
“What is different between this study and other studies that have proposed solutions is that we are trying to examine not only the climate benefits of reducing carbon but also the air pollution benefits, job benefits, and cost benefits,” Jacobson said.
The team intentionally excluded nuclear power due to the 10 to 19-year timeframe between planning and operation, potential for meltdowns, high costs, weapons proliferation and waste risks. Biofuels and “clean coal” were also excluded as they cause heavy air pollution, which researchers are trying to eliminate, and emit more than 50 times more carbon per unit of energy than wind, water or solar power.
Studies that champion 100 percent wind, water and solar sources have been criticized for ignoring the massive investments required to move a nation toward zero greenhouse gas emissions. But Jacobson said overall health, climate and energy costs for countries with completely renewable energy sources would be about one-fourth the price of the current fossil fuel system. While upfront costs would be higher – as in any scenario where existing energy sources are replaced – further expenditures would pay for themselves over time in the form of health and climate-based savings
“It appears we can achieve the enormous social benefits of a zero-emission energy system at essentially no extra cost,” Delucchi said.
In an accompanying preview of the report, Mark Dyson of the Rocky Mountain Institute credited the paper with advancing a conversation within and between the scientific, business and political communities about how to determine and establish a decarbonized economy.
“Jacobson et al.'s present study provides sharper focus on one scenario, and refines a set of priorities for near-term action to enable it,” Dyson writes.
“The scientific community's growing body of work on global low-carbon energy transition pathways provides robust evidence that such a transition can be accomplished, and a growing understanding of the specific levers that need to be pulled to do so.”
A video explaining the researchers’ findings can be viewed here.
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