Stanford researchers show how we can tackle the climate emergency worldwide

Cliff Mitchell - 03/01/2020

Wind, water, solar energy

Countries around the world, representing more than 99.7% of global fossil fuel CO2 emissions, can switch to 100 per cent clean energy by the year 2050


As we start a new decade climate catastophes are being replicated around the globe. We know urgent action is required but the scale of the challenge may seem unsurmountable. Good news then that researchers as Stanford University in California have published a detailed and costed plan showing how a key set of 143 countries around the world, representing more than 99.7% of global fossil fuel CO2 emissions, can switch to 100 per cent clean energy by the year 2050.

Although the plan would require a massive investment of US$73 trillion the research shows the jobs and savings it would generate would pay this investment back in as little as seven years. This represents a good return on investment for any major project but given it could stabilise our dangerously increasing global temperatures, reduce the 7 million deaths caused by pollution every year, and create more jobs that keeping the status quo, the case for making the investment is undeniable.

"Based on previous calculations we have performed, we believe this will avoid 1.5 degree global warming," environmental engineer and lead author Mark Jacobson said.
"The timeline is more aggressive than any IPCC scenario - we concluded in 2009 that a 100 percent transition by 2030 was technically and economically possible - but for social and political reasons, a 2050 date is more practical."

To avoid 1.5°C global warming, we must stop at least 80% of all energy and non-energy fossil fuels and biofuel emissions by 2030 and stop 100% no later than 2050.

The plan

The research show that it is possible to meet the demand and maintain table electricity supplies using only clean, renewable energy: wind, water, solar and storage across all 143 countries studied. 95 percent of the technology required to achieve this already exists with only long distance travel and ocean travel still be be commercialised. All energy sectors including electricity, transport, industry, agriculture, fishing, forestry and the military would transition to work solely with renewable energy.

"By electrifying everything with clean, renewable energy, we reduce power demand by about 57 percent," Jacobson explained.

These technologies already exist, are reliable and are cost-effective. There's also no need for nuclear which takes 10-19 years between planning and operation, biofuels that cause more air pollution, or the invention of new technologies.

"'Clean coal' just doesn't exist and never will," Jacobson says, "because the technology does not work and only increases mining and emissions of air pollutants while reducing little carbon, and their is no guarantee at all the carbon that is captured will stay captured."

The team found that electrifying all energy sectors makes the demand for energy more flexible and the combination of renewable energy and storage is better suited to meet this flexibility than our current systems.

The plan "creates 28.6 million more full-time jobs in the long term than business as usual and only needs approximately 0.17 percent land for new footprint" the researchers write in their report.

Building the infrastructure necessary for this transition would, of course, create CO2 emissions. The researchers calculated that the necessary steel and concrete would require about 0.914 percent of current CO2 emissions. But switching to renewables to produce the concrete would reduce this.

Clearly with proposals this big there are plenty of uncertainties. The research team has taken these into account by modelling several scenarios with different levels of costs and climate damage.

"You're probably not going to predict exactly what's going to happen," said Jacobson. "But there are many solutions and many scenarios that could work."

Technology writer Michael Barnard believes the study's estimates are quite conservative - skewing towards the more expensive technologies and scenarios.

Will it work?

Obviously implementing such an energy transition does not remove the need to simultaneously tackle greenhouse gas emissions from other sources like fertilisers and deforestation.

This proposal will, of course, be challenged by industries and politicians that have the most to lose, especially those with a track record of throwing massive resources at delaying our progress towards a more sustainable future. Criticisms of the team's previous work have already been linked back to these exact groups.

But "the costs of transitioning have dropped so low, transitions are occurring even in places without policies," said Jacobson. "For example, in the US, 9 out of the 10 states with the most wind power installed are Republican-voting states with few or no policies promoting wind power."

Over 60 countries have already passed laws to transition to 100 percent renewable electricity by between 2020 and 2050. This guide can give them and other countries an example of how this can practically be done.

"There's really no downside to making this transition," Jacobson explained to Bloomberg. "Most people are afraid it will be too expensive. Hopefully this will allay some of those fears."

At least 11 independent research groups agree this type of transition is possible, including energy researchers Mark Diesendorf and Ben Elliston from University of New South Wales, Australia.

They reviewed major criticisms of 100 percent renewable energy transition plans and concluded "the principal barriers to [100 percent renewable electricity systems] are neither technological nor economic, but instead are primarily political, institutional and cultural."

So, multiple lines of evidence insist we have the technology, resources and knowledge to make this possible. The only question is, can enough of us put aside our fears and ideologies to make it happen?

The regions and countries included in the study are shown here:

Region Country or Countries within Each Region
Africa Algeria, Angola, Benin, Botswana, Cameroon, Congo, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gabon, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Libya, Morocco, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, South Sudan, Sudan, Tanzania, Togo, Tunisia, Zambia, Zimbabwe
Australia Australia
Canada Canada
Central America Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama
Central Asia Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan
China China, Hong Kong, Democratic Republic of Korea, Mongolia
Cuba Cuba
Europe Albania, Austria, Belarus, Belgium, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Gibraltar, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Kosovo, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Macedonia, Malta, Moldova Republic, Montenegro, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Ukraine, United Kingdom
Haiti Haiti, Dominican Republic
Iceland Iceland
India India, Nepal, Sri Lanka
Israel Israel
Jamaica Jamaica
Japan Japan
Mauritius Mauritius
Mideast Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syrian Arab Republic, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, Yemen
New Zealand New Zealand
Philippines Philippines
Russia Georgia, Russia
South America Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Curacao, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, Uruguay, Venezuela
Southeast Asia Bangladesh, Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam
South Korea South Korea
Taiwan Taiwan
United States United States

"The biggest risk is that the plans are not implemented quickly enough," Jacobson said. "I hope people will take these plans to their policymakers in their country to help solve these problems."

So here's what you can do - get this plan in front of every politician and decision maker, locally, nationally, and globally - NOW!