Climate change has always been a huge concern because it has devastating impacts on Earth. The year 2022 saw several climate change-induced extreme weather events and disasters, such as the Europe Heat Wave and Pakistan floods. COP27, the 27th United Nations Climate Change Conference held in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, secured an agreement on a “loss and damage” fund to help vulnerable countries. At the climate summit, world leaders called for the phase-out of coal and transition to clean energy. However, a green transition can generate substantial greenhouse gases, according to a new study.
Building energy systems that do not use fossil fuels but renewable and clean energy sources will lead to carbon emissions, the first-of-its-kind study says. This is because when wind turbines, solar panels and other new infrastructure are constructed, a lot of energy will be consumed. Some of this energy is necessarily coming from the fossil fuels the world is trying to get rid of.
Why clean energy transition should be fast
However, the good news is, the study says, that the emissions will dramatically decrease if the infrastructure for cleaner energy generation is built fast. The faster the transition to green energy happens, the fewer the carbon emissions. This is because far more renewable energy early on will mean far less fossil fuel needed to power the clean energy transition.
This marks the first time a study estimates the cost of a green transition not in dollars, but in greenhouse gases. The study, led by researchers at Columbia Climate School, was recently published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
In a statement released by Columbia Climate School, Corey Lesk, one of the authors on the paper, said the message is that it is going to take energy to rebuild the global energy system, and the world needs to account for that. He added that any way one rebuilds the global energy system, the fact that energy will be required and carbon emissions will be generated is not negligible. The more one can initially bring on renewables, the more they can power the transition with renewables.
What is the cost of clean energy transition?
A large amount of energy is required in mining, manufacturing, construction, transport and other activities to create massive farms of solar panels and wind turbines, and infrastructure for geothermal and other energy sources. This energy use also results in carbon emissions. The team calculated the potential emissions, as part of the study.
The cost of new energy infrastructure is projected at $3.5 trillion dollars per year until 2050 to reach net zero emissions, according to a study conducted by the World Economic Forum. The cost could be up to about $14 trillion for the United States alone in the same period, according to a study led by researchers at Princeton University. The new study led by Columbia Climate is the first to project the cost of green energy transition in greenhouse gases.
How much carbon dioxide emissions will occur due to green transition by 2100?
The current slow pace of renewable infrastructure production is predicted to lead to a 2.7 degrees Celsius warming by the end of the century. The researchers from Columbia Climate School estimate that these activities will produce 185 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide by 2100.
According to the study, this is equivalent to five or six years of current global emissions, and will be a huge added burden on the atmosphere.
How can carbon emissions be reduced?
The world must build the same infrastructure fast enough to limit the warming of Earth to two degrees in order to halve the emissions to 95 billion tonnes. The cost of green transition would be only 20 billion tonnes of carbon emissions by 2100, if a truly ambitious path of limiting warning to 1.5 degrees Celsius is followed. This is equivalent to six months of current global emissions.
Transition to electric vehicles, energy efficient buildings will lead to emissions
However, the researchers note that all their estimates are probably quite low. This is because the estimates do not account for materials and construction needed for new electric transmission lines, and batteries for storage. These are highly energy- and resource-intensive products.
Also, the researchers have not considered the cost of replacing gas- and diesel-powered vehicles with electric ones, or the cost of making existing buildings more energy efficient.
The researchers have looked only at carbon dioxide emissions, which currently account for 60 per cent of ongoing warming. They have not considered other greenhouse gases including methane and nitrous oxide.
The study says that it is hard to quantify other effects of transition to renewables. However, these effects could be substantial.
Fragile environments will be interfered with during green transition
The new high-tech hardware will require not just massive amounts of base metals including copper, iron, and nickel, but also previously lesser-used rare elements such as lithium, cobalt, yttrium and neodymium.
Many of these commodities will have to be extracted from previously untouched regions with fragile environments, including the deep sea, the fast-melting Greenland, and African rainforests.
Large stretches of land will be needed to construct solar panels and wind turbines. This could affect ecosystems and the people living there.
Leak said the researchers are laying out the bottom bound in their estimates. The upper bound could be much higher, but the result is encouraging.
Recent prices of renewable technologies should drop
He explained that if recent prices drop for renewable technologies, 80 to 90 per cent of what the world needs could be installed in the next few decades, especially if current subsidies for fossil-fuel production are diverted to renewables. He said that if the world gets on a more ambitious path, the whole problem goes away. It will be bad news if the world does not start investing in the next five to 10 years.
Lesk and his colleagues also looked at carbon emissions from adapting to sea-level rise, and found that the construction of seawalls and moving cities inland where necessary will generate one billion tonnes of carbon dioxide by 2100 under the two-degree Celsius scenario.
However, this is only part of the cost of adaptation. This is because the researchers did not look at infrastructure to control inland flooding, irrigation in areas that might become drier, adapting buildings to higher temperatures, or other needed projects.
Despite these limitations, the study concludes that the magnitude of carbon dioxide emissions embedded in the broader climate transition is of geophysical and policy relevance, the authors wrote in the paper.
Fast-paced decarbonisation can greatly reduce transition emissions. This will lend new urgency to policy progress on rapid renewable energy deployment.