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IPCC Study: Renewable Energy Could Provide Majority of World’s Energy by 2050

Recently, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a comprehensive study on renewable energy, entitled Special Report on Renewable Energy Sources and Climate Change Mitigation. The report finds that by 2050, nearly 80 percent of the world's energy supply could be provided by renewable energy sources. WRI Analyst Lutz Weischer, who works on renewable energy policies, sat down to talk about the report’s implications.

Why is this report significant?

IPCC reports have a credibility and legitimacy that few other sources can match. Because this report draws upon the analysis of preeminent scientists, economists and engineers engaged in climate and energy research, the conclusions have considerable weight. This particular report looks at 164 peer-reviewed energy scenarios to find common themes about what the world’s energy supply will look like in 2050. They also assessed the literature on the technical potential of renewable energy sources, the benefits they can bring beyond reducing greenhouse gas emissions and the barriers that stand in the way of broader deployment. The report will be the go-to place for anyone who wants to get a credible and comprehensive view on the global potential of renewable energy.

What are the report’s primary findings?

The report predicts renewable energy, excluding traditional biomass1, to grow three to ten times by 2050. Not all of the 164 scenarios analyzed in the report predict significant greenhouse gas emissions reductions; but those that do show a massive expansion of renewables. In other words, you can’t solve the climate crisis without renewable energy. Depending on how ambitious countries are, nearly 80 percent of the world’s energy supply could be provided by renewables in 2050. The best news is the report finds that we would have enough wind, water, sun and biomass resources available to meet all of the world’s energy needs with today’s technologies. However, it highlights several political and financial challenges to reaching those numbers.

Many fear that cost is the biggest barrier to large scale deployment of renewable energy. What’s your take on that?

People shouldn't have to chose between affordable and clean energy - but in most cases fossil fuels are still cheaper than renewables. One reason is that most countries heavily subsidize fossil fuels. The IPCC report suggests that if fossil fuels were not subsidized and reflected their true costs – taking into account externalities like their impact on health and the environment – renewables would be much more cost-competitive.

The world needs cleaner energy, but we also need to find ways to increase energy access for the hundreds of millions of people who currently go without. At WRI, we try to reconcile these two goals. We’re studying ways to drive down the cost renewable energy and also improve its performance, so that it can become available to more people.

One strategy is for countries to phase out fossil fuel subsidies while adding incentives and subsidies for renewable energy that are designed to encourage innovation. In the long run, this would allow renewable energy to be competitive with traditional sources of power, and countries could phase out those incentives as well.

It’s important to note that in some regions of the world, such as rural regions in Africa, renewable energy is already a cost-competitive source of power.

What other policies are needed to tap into our renewable energy potential?

WRI’s research shows that it’s not enough to just create financial support for renewable energy. Smart renewable energy policy should also include targets (such as a renewable energy standard that sets a renewable generation requirement), improvements to a country’s regulatory structure (to ensure that rules are in place to integrate renewables into a country’s energy system), and incentives to encourage community participation in energy decisions. To accelerate the transition to clean energy, you also need companies that are willing to invest in renewable energy projects, and banks willing to back those projects. In developing countries, that support may need to come from bi- and multilateral development banks.

What does the IPCC report say about how renewable energy can meet development goals?

The report suggests that renewable energy may be a good way to increase energy access. In many areas of the world that lack advanced grid systems, electricity is best produced locally. Rather than importing and transporting diesel fuel to a rural area, for instance, a village could create a micro-grid based on the solar resources they have and save money in the process. In many remote areas, decentralized projects can be cheaper and cleaner than grid expansion, as well as providing energy security.

Much of the growth in renewable energy is predicted to come from developing countries. Why?

The report highlights that 53 percent of current renewable electricity generation capacity is in developing countries, and that the majority of future renewable growth will also be in developing countries.

Developing countries are interested in renewable energy for several reasons: energy access, energy security, economic development opportunities, and even the health benefits that renewable energy have over fossil fuels. These countries are acting in their national interests.

How does the IPCC report relate to WRI’s work?

WRI examines how to realize the full potential of renewable energies that is presented in the IPCC report. For example tomorrowk we will release a paper titled Grounding Green Power, that draws lessons learned from developing countries on smart renewable energy policy and provides guidance to donors who are looking for the most efficient ways to support the clean energy transition. In a recent report, High Wire Act, we looked at one of the key barriers identified in the IPCC report, integrating renewables into the power grid, with detailed case studies of the United States, China and the EU. We also conduct research on issues related to governance and finance and how they influence renewable energy deployment. At the upcoming Asia Clean Energy Forum in Manila, we will present the full spectrum of our renewable energy analysis.

  1. The report looks at six renewable energy sources: Direct solar, geothermal energy, hydropower, ocean energy, wind energy and bioenergy. ”Traditional biomass” is a form of bioenergy and mainly refers to burning wood for cooking and heating purposes in many parts of the developing world. In most scenarios, a decrease in the use of traditional biomass is predicted, as people switch to more modern energy sources. To get an accurate idea of the growth in all other renewable energy sources, traditional biomass was excluded when calculating these growth rates. ↩︎

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