'Renewables offer cause for hope amid 2017's dark skies'

AGENDA | Climate change and politics make the immediate future look bleak but wind and solar won't be thwarted, writes Darius Snieckus

We are living — to transpose the well-worn phrase — in the worst of times and the best of times.

Despite the consensus of Donald Trump and his cabinet of denialists, the world’s climate is changing rapidly and radically.

From hellish wildfires in western Canada to the largest die-off of coral ever recorded on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef — and record heatwaves and floods just about everywhere else — the signs are clear that the planet is being irrevocably altered by humankind.

Researchers reckon last September will be seen by history as a malign milestone: the month atmospheric carbon dioxide for the first time failed to drop below 400 parts per million, believed to be our climatic “point of no return”.

This dire forecast of our fast-approaching future is not improved by more immediate realities, either. Ambitions embodied by the Paris Agreement will not be emboldened by the likely impacts of Trump and his cronies; backward-looking Brexiteers and the rise of the far-right in Europe; or indeed default climate leader China’s worsening “airpocalypse”.

The International Energy Agency’s (IEA) World Energy Outlook 2016 calls the challenge to keep global temperatures to a 2°C rise on pre-industrial levels “immense”, needing $40trn spent on renewables, nuclear and carbon capture and storage, and a further $35trn for energy efficiency, to even stand a chance of being achieved by the end of the century.

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Yet, as with Pandora’s box, hope — even it is almost blind hope — remains. And it is powered by renewable energy. More investment has been made in renewables than fossil-fuel exploration and production for two years in a row.

Wind power is marching toward an installed capacity of over 2,100GW by 2030, solar could hit 2,300GW by then. With the energy transition will come not only massive CO2 emission cuts, but also the potential creation of millions of new jobs around the world and a re-envisioned global economy.

In a post-geopolitical world, many corporations are showing themselves trailblazers as we travel into this great unknown.

Google is building on a leadership position of sourcing 100% of its data centre and office power from renewables in 2017 — as a first step toward “24/7 zero-carbon operations”; and through progressive organisations such as RE100, hundreds of other industrial giants are joining this revolutionary movement.

If there is courage to be taken, it may be from the IEA itself — a one-time watchdog of the world’s oil supplies and now a self-declared global “clean energy hub” — whose chief, Fatih Birol, wrote: “The particular commitments made in Paris are national, but the determination to realise change is shared. The outlook for global energy changes in consequence.”

Looking back over 2016 and into the year ahead, the world and the new energy industry that will eventually power it face unprecedented challenges. But we do so led by our as-yet-unrealised potential.

As the poet TS Eliot intoned: “For last year’s words belong to last year’s language / And next year’s words await another voice.../And to make an end is to make a beginning.” Roll on 2017.

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