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Energy Crunch: The end of business as usual for fossil fuels?

Image via Voice0Reason/flickr. Creative Commons 2.0 license.

Three things you shouldn't miss this week
  1. Article: IPCC climate change report: averting catastrophe is eminently affordable - Landmark UN analysis concludes global roll-out of clean energy would shave only a tiny fraction off economic growth.
  2. Chart: Solar energy costs rapidly approaching those of conventional energy sources.

    Business Insider - Data based on utility-scale solar costs in developing markets with lots of sun.
  3. ArticlePutin warns Europe of gas shortages over Ukraine debts - Russian President Vladimir Putin has warned European leaders that Ukraine's delays in paying for Russian gas have created a "critical situation".
It’s the end of business as usual for fossil fuels. That’s according to the latest report from the IPCC, released on Sunday. This third report in a recent series looks at climate change mitigation, and while the language around the release is fairly upbeat – keeping temperature increases below 2°C is still possible and affordable – the underlying message is dire. Global emissions are still rising (atmospheric CO2 levels hit a new high of 402ppm last week), fossil fuels are the main culprit, and current trajectories point to 3.7 to 4.8°C of warming by the end of the century.
Looking at the good news first, the IPCC report highlights the huge potential of maturing renewable power technologies to provide a low carbon energy transition. This point is made even more robustly in a recent note from AllianceBernstein on the cost of solar – see our chart of the week, which shows the cost of solar power plunging towards those of most conventional sources of energy. The writers point out that the chart reflects solar costs in developing markets with lots of sun but, as they say, this is exactly where much of the growth in energy demand is. Michael Parker of AllianceBernstein is so gung ho on solar that he sees rapid deflation of fossil fuel prices as the key risk to a solar future once investors realise the danger to their assets.
Of course, cutting emissions means not only ramping up renewables, but also ensuring fossil fuels are neutralised – either by capturing the carbon or not burning them in the first place. Scenarios to stabilise emissions at 450ppm by the end of the century demand enormous emissions reductions, yet figures from the International Energy Agency show that fossil fuels are at at 82% of the global energy mix, the same as 25 years ago despite the recent rise of renewables. While technology is moving fast, solar currently provides just 3% of global electricity, so other strategies such as energy efficiency and behavioural change are essential.
The worsening crisis in Ukraine is a stark reminder of how geopolitics could derail optimism about solar and the transition to low carbon energy. Russia’s warnings about the gas supply have spurred calls to get fracking in Europe for the sake of energy security – but this could only add to global emissions. The next pivotal round of talks on global climate measures is scheduled for Paris in 2015, and negotiations could be even more fraught than usual if the US, Europe and Russia are still at diplomatic loggerheads. For the rest of us, why wait for Paris? Take a look at what the folks at Wadebridge Renewable Energy Network (WREN) are doing to change the energy story where they are for some great inspiration of what you could take part in.

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