Can we still limit warming enough to prevent catastrophic climate change? In the season finale, Lucy and Giles hear the context for why the energy transition is so vital, and why it’s more important than ever to switch to clean energy as fast as possible…
With thanks to Johan Rockström and Tim Gould. This episode was produced by Phil Sansom and Izzy Woolgar.
Giles Whittell: Right now, the climate change picture looks a bit bleak.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, climate pledges – as they currently stand – will make it impossible to limit warming to 1.5 degrees, and they’ll make 2 degrees much more difficult.
Sticking to either of these figures will require, and I quote, “rapid and deep” changes to “all sectors” of the world’s economy. And as one of the largest sources of emissions that cause global warming, the energy sector remains firmly at the forefront of this challenge.
Lucy Yu: Current geopolitical tensions are leading many countries to look towards emergency energy sources. In many cases, these sources are fossil fuels – prompting commentators to suggest that the transition has been ‘postponed’. But rather than putting things on hold, are we actually in danger of reversing the progress we’ve made in our pursuit of net zero?
The Guardian recently uncovered nearly 200 planned fossil fuel projects that would each result in at least a billion tonnes of CO2 emissions over their lifetimes. In total, that’s equivalent to about 18 years of current global CO2 emissions. And 60 per cent of these have already started pumping.
Giles Whittell: So the odds are stacked against us, and time is running out. That being so, it’s more important than ever to switch to clean energy, now, as fast as possible. Our survival will depend on it.
Lucy Yu: Some say the world will never limit warming to two degrees.
Giles Whittell: But that’s not true. In reality, the two degree warming limit is still within our grasp.
Lucy Yu: Hello and welcome to Inside The Energy Transition – a podcast about the bright future of green energy. I’m Lucy Yu, CEO of Centre for Net Zero…
Giles Whittell: …and I’m Giles Whittell, editorial lead on climate and sustainability at Tortoise. In this series we’re exploring the biggest questions, and debunking the most commonplace myths, about the energy transition: one of the defining goals of our time.
Lucy Yu: Earlier this year, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its sixth assessment report, synthesising the latest, cutting-edge research about the state of climate change.
Prospects looked grim. The report found that, based on each country’s Paris Agreement commitments to reduce emissions, the world’s average temperature will still smash right past the goal of no more than two degrees’ temperature rise above pre-industrial levels. And that’s assuming the commitments are even kept.
But there is hope. The authors outline a number of pathways under which we do keep our emissions under two degrees. They require enormous structural changes, new technologies, and rapid investment – but they’re still possible.
So where are we heading? Should we be feeling the urgency, sinking into despair, or clinging to the scraps of good news? Or perhaps all three at once? Here to explain is Johan Rockström, joint director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany. Johan, thanks for joining us.
Johan Rockström: Hello there. Great to be with you.
Lucy Yu: Johan, could you dig into this for us – is the 2022 IPCC Report as bad as it sounds?
Johan Rockström: Well, I wouldn’t use those terms, but it’s definitely the strongest scientific and most authoritative assessment we’ve ever had, and it’s really dire news. It shows really clearly and provides unequivocal support for the fact that we have a climate urgency.
We need to cut global emissions by half every decade, which means that from now onwards, not only do we have to bend the global curve of emissions… which we still are not doing, the global emissions are actually still rising, when in fact we need to very, very rapidly reduce emissions, and it corresponds to something like seven per cent global emission reductions per year.
And as you’ve just emphasised in the introduction here, we’re actually moving in the opposite direction because we’re actually investing in new fossil fuel infrastructure around the world, which of course collides entirely with science.
And when you look at the IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, all the modelling that has been done with the best climate models we have in the world gives us something in the order of 400 billion tons of carbon dioxide remaining for us to emit, to have a 50 per cent chance of holding the 1.5 degree Celsius limit.
And, you know, we emit roughly 40 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year today, which gives us… 400 divided by 40, it’s another ten years in the fossil-fuel-driven world economy if we continue burning like today
That is why science says, “let’s have an orderly landing. Let’s do this in an orderly transition, where we invest in a very large way to replace fossil-fuel-based energy systems from oil, coal, and natural gas with renewable energy systems.” And that gives us a pathway that requires a net zero world economy in 28 years, by 2050.
That’s the orderly phase-out. And this is coming close to being beyond what’s realistic. I mean, we can still talk of the window being open, because with real transformation, with real innovation, with real big investments, we can actually cut emissions by half every decade. I mean, most analysis shows it is possible. But the door is rapidly shutting.
Lucy Yu: So Johan, some people talk about a target of 1.5 degrees warming, whilst others discuss 2 degrees. Could you just elaborate: do these temperatures actually mean in reality? What’s the difference in practical terms between one and the other?
Johan Rockström: To put it very simply we have – since the Paris climate agreement that said, “we now must hold global mean surface temperatures well below 2, and aiming for 1.5” – since then, over just the last seven years, we have many scientific papers, including the IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, showing that 1.5 is not a target.
It’s not a goal. Many journalists use the term ‘goal’. It is a limit, a sharp scientific planetary boundary. Go beyond 1.5 and we risk triggering unstoppable, irreversible changes. We risk crossing tipping points.
You have a handful of big systems like the Greenland ice sheet, like the Gulf Stream, like parts of the Amazon rainforest, like the tropical coral reef systems, that are at risk of crossing thresholds of irreversible change already at 1.5.
So scientifically today we can say that 1.5 is what I call a ‘climate planetary boundary’. We need to do everything we can to stay within that limit – not seen as a goal, but a limit.
And remember that since we left the last ice age 20,000 years ago, the global mean surface temperature has been roughly something like 14 degrees Celsius and the variability has been plus-minus half a degree. And now we’ve increased temperature already today with 1.2 degree Celsius.
So we have already crashed through the warmest temperature on earth since we left the last ice age. And remember, since the last ice age, we’ve been in an interglacial, which is a warm period of planet earth.
So we’re pushing the planet outside of the warmest temperature on earth since the last ice age. So 1.5 is extremely far away from even the warmest temperature we’ve had well before we started burning fossil fuels. So two degrees is, of course, even more severe.
Actually the latest science shows – can you imagine – that even if you take the geological journey back three million years, we’ve never reached 2 degrees. We’ve never come close to 2 degrees Celsius.
So that, I think, is one of the key misunderstandings. It’s like, “okay, so 1.5 is one target, 2 degrees is another target. Of course it gets worse, but we can somehow manage it.” That’s not the case. We have so much evidence today that: go beyond two degrees, and we really enter unknown terrain.
We are at risk of truly pushing the whole planet into self-amplified warming, away from manageable conditions. Stay between 1.5 and 2: we will have big, big problems. We should really aim for that limit, the 1.5 limit, which already is far away from the warmest temperature the planet has had since we started developing civilizations as we know it.
Giles Whittell: So Johan, give us your summary of some of the pathways that we could realistically take to stay under 2 degrees of warming.
Johan Rockström: Yes, I mean, there’s many things that not only we can do, but we must do. And at the highest level, there are two immediate transitions that have to be done urgently. And the number one is the energy transition, of course, basically within one generation.
So we’re talking about an energy revolution, to occur between now and 2050. And the investments have to start happening now. The second revolution, because it’s actually at the same pace and magnitude, is the food system transition.
We now understand that the reason why the planet has been able to keep the temperatures so incredibly tight – I mean, varying even just half a degree Celsius since we left the last ice age – is not because the solar radiation coming from the sun has been so gentle to planet Earth. Oh no. It is actually that a healthy planet has a very significant, almost a remarkable capacity, to buffer and dampen stress.
So when the planet starts warming, the planet has this capacity through the oceans, through biodiversity, through soils, to reflect incoming solar radiation back into space. 90 per cent of incoming heat is reflected back to space just thanks to the colour of white ice. So you want to have healthy, frozen, really, really hard white glaciers and ice sheets to function as massive planetary coolers on planet Earth.
So the food system, when you look at the data, you find that, “oh my God, the number one cause for losing biodiversity – overloading with nutrients, land system change and deforestation – is all caused by agriculture.” And agriculture is actually the single largest emitter of greenhouse gases in its own right.
So the energy system itself is actually on par with agriculture as a source of emissions. And this is also, of course, because it’s not only carbon dioxide – which is the biggest gas, 70 per cent comes from carbon dioxide – but you also have methane coming from livestock, ruminants, that release methane in their digestive systems, but you also have nitrous oxide, another really severe greenhouse gas that comes from leakage when we apply fertilisers in producing food.
So these are the two big transformations. Get the energy system to renewable, zero carbon energy; get the food system to be sustainable, circular, and no longer destroy the remaining intact nature that provides us with this phenomenal service of reducing global warming.
I mean, did you know – and the IPCC confirms this – that 56 per cent, every year, 56 per cent on average, annually, of our emissions of greenhouse gases from the energy system when we burn fossil fuels are taken up in oceans and intact nature on land. This is a proof of that buffering capacity when the planet still has some resilience to help us stay in a state that can support humanity.
Lucy Yu: Johan, I have a related question. You talked about the importance of decarbonising the energy system. How quickly does that need to happen?
Johan Rockström: Well, we’re talking about going from 40 billion tons of carbon dioxide being emitted from fossil fuel burning today, down to, we say, ‘net zero’ by 2050. The reason why we say ‘net’ is that there will always be a little residual, because we have what we call ‘difficult to abate sectors’, like aviation, transport of goods on the high seas, aluminium and steel industries.
Some sectors will be a bit slower, and some countries will also admittedly be a bit slower, like the big developing countries. So there will be a little bit of a residual. Let’s come back to that, potentially.
So we have to go from 40, down to basically net zero by 2050, which is a pace of seven per cent per year reductions of emissions.
Now we are increasing emissions with one-two per cent per year, and we have to shift to minus seven per year. When you change something – anything – faster than two per cent per year, that means you double in 20 years. It’s exponential. It means you’re going really fast. You can see the curves just bending in a more and more rapid way. That’s why I call this a revolution.
So that’s the pace. And how do we do this in an orderly way? And what I mean by an orderly way is to start substituting coal, oil, and gas with wind, solar, biomass, hydro, and potentially even nuclear, in a way that enables us citizens and economies to continue functioning.
You don’t want to – in panic, because of some kind of disaster point – have to basically shut down. you cannot shut down the world economy. We don’t want to have a pandemic 2.0 because we suddenly wake up one morning and say, “oh my God, we’re actually pushing the on button on forever losing the Greenland ice sheet, which would give us seven metres of sea level rise.”
So the orderly phase-out has to follow this exponential pathway. It can be done, but it requires this concerted effort across the entire world.
Lucy Yu: An interesting part of the IPCC’s work is their use of what are called ‘energy-system models’ to simulate and predict the world’s energy use. How confident can we be in those models? Do we have a good idea of what might happen to the world’s energy system?
Johan Rockström: Well, to begin with, those models are the best we have. We are running one of those big models here at the Potsdam Institute. And admittedly, one has to recognise that this is difficult, and I think we have a good handle on the wedges of change we need to see sector-by-sector.
The problem is that if you look just over the past two or three IPCC assessments, the tendency has been to underestimate the inertia in countries’ abilities to really deliver on the pledges. So for every IPCC report, what you see is the following: because we’re making so little progress, and because the atmosphere can only carry a finite amount of carbon, the budget gets reduced more and more, but the scientists try to give an orderly pathway out.
But because the budget gets reduced faster and faster, the only way to be able to hold 1.5 is to open up a new way of handling carbon and greenhouse gas in the atmosphere. And that is, of course, different technologies to take out carbon from the atmosphere.
So in the sixth assessment of the IPCC, you see, again, a very optimistic assumption on scaling carbon capture and storage: different technologies for taking out carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere, what we call direct air capture, but also to retrofit coal-fired plants, and oil refineries, and industries, to avoid that carbon dioxide is released, and pump that back into the crust of the earth.
Now that makes me nervous. Because – we talk very little about this – but hidden behind the models is that the only way we can hold 1.5 today is assumptions – to give you an idea of the range – in the order of five to ten billion tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent of capture, every year, in the second half of this century.
So we’re emitting 40 billion tons per year today. And we’re expected to take out in the order of 25 per cent of that, up to ten, every year by investing in massive technologies to suck up carbon from the atmosphere.
Are we doing anything of that today? No. I mean, we’re running some pilot projects here and there, and you have ClimateWorks doing some great efforts in Iceland. We’re picking up in the millions, not in the billions of tons of carbon dioxide.
So the energy transition is getting tighter and tighter and tighter. And what these big energy models do is, of course, they want to give the world a pathway that seems reasonable.
But that reasonable pathway cannot allow a complete shutdown of the global energy system, so it depends more and more on new technologies – what I would call essentially geoengineering-type technologies – to be able to compensate for our failure so far of bending the global curve of emissions, and following the pathway that we need.
So we should be cognisant of the fact that there’s a lot that has to happen simultaneously to have any chance of holding the 1.5 degrees Celsius limit.
Giles Whittell: Johan, are we using models, and more specifically language, to reassure ourselves when we shouldn’t be reassured? I mean, I’m thinking specifically of the term ‘net zero’.
Everyone’s latched onto it, and we see oil and gas companies committing themselves to net zero saying they’re compatible with 1.5 degrees of warming, that they too will hit net zero by or around 2050. But look under the hood and they’re heavily reliant on the kinds of things you’ve been talking about: carbon capture, and even geoengineering, when none of these have been approved at scale as ways to reduce atmospheric carbon.
Johan Rockström: No, I fully agree with you Giles. And this is one of the things that really makes me deeply concerned: that we are, even from science tending to send… not feel good messages, but this sense that the window is still open, we still have an orderly pathway, we can still do this, but under the surface, we’re building up almost the fantasy assumptions on scaling technologies that so far do not exist.
And it is, just as you point out, even worse, because you have big actors, like for example the Shell Sky scenarios, the 1.5 degrees Celsius scenarios. I mean, Shell runs one of these big climate models, I have great respect for their work. But they are doing exactly what you’re flagging.
They say, “look here, we can do net zero by 2050, but the only way to do it is by compensating our slow phase-out of oil, coal, natural gas, which actually lands at zero somewhere 2070 and beyond,” which is not communicated.
But you reach net zero because you’re assuming basically utopian levels of tree planting, equivalent to an area of Brazil, to somehow vacuum clean the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. And this is really – apart from not being scientific – it is really worrying, because it lends to this sense that, well, you know, somehow we will… we’re just pushing the can down the street, and somewhere down the line, we’ll find a solution.
And my advice here is: number one, let’s once and for all basically put in the waste bin this whole notion of offsetting. There is no room for offsetting anymore. You could talk of upsetting ten years back, but today the global carbon budget for the energy transition is so small, we can only hold 1.5 if we also keep nature intact, and we also invest in carbon capture and storage, and we have to do all these things additionally.
You cannot offset one against the other. You have to both phase out fossil fuels, the energy transition, and invest in nature. So nature-climate solutions are really important. Tree planting is superbly important. But you cannot use it as an offsetting against slow emission reductions.
And you also have to invest in carbon capture and storage. You cannot say, “oh, I cannot get rid of my oil or my gas, so instead I do some CCS and I offset them against each other.” You have to do all three. And all climate models show that the only pathway to land and hold the 1.5 boundary is to do all three.
So I would say, get rid of offsetting. The only reason why I still support ‘net’ zero… I agree with you Giles, it is misused, but the problem is we have no choice. There is no chance of getting to absolute zero by 2050. No chance. Zero chance. I mean, you could bulldoze and shut down the whole world, of course, but you will have a residual. And at best you’ll have a residual of some five-ten billion tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent still operating, per year, in 28 years time.
That has to be somehow compensated for, by investing in what I would call ‘like for like’, meaning you burn fossil fuels emitting carbon dioxide, so you have to take it away from the atmosphere. I would see direct air capture as the net zero technology.
Planting trees doesn’t help us very much. Because you take out something that’s been in the Earth’s crust for a hundred million years, it enters the whole carbon cycle in the atmosphere, and then you get some nice photosynthesis to absorb it in a tree, but that tree has a lifetime of 40 years, or it burns down in three years, because perhaps of climate change-caused droughts and forest fires.
So there’s a lot of problems with this idea that you can continue burning on one side and compensate it with tree plantings on the other side. So yeah, we have to be really careful with: what carbon do we put in which buckets?
Giles Whittell: Johan has made clear that we’re a long way from where we need to be, and the costs of inaction are immense.
So if the right actions were taken in the energy sector, the question is: is the window to limit warming to 2 degrees or below still open?
To find out, we’re joined by Tim Gould, Chief Energy Economist at the International Energy Agency. Tim is co-head of the World Energy Outlook series, which is one of the world’s most authoritative sources for strategic insight on long-term energy and environmental trends.
Tim, thanks for joining us.
Tim Gould: It’s a great pleasure, thanks for the invitation.
Giles Whittell: We’d like to ask you first about the IEA’s landmark ‘Net Zero Emissions by 2050 Scenario’, which was published last year and caused quite a ripple effect. Ih charts a narrow but achievable roadmap to a 1.5 degrees stabilisation in global warming. Tell us a bit more about it, and your view of the likelihood of it remaining a scenario rather than a reality.
Tim Gould: Well, that’s a great question. I suppose we have to examine: why do we do these scenarios? I mean, we’re trying to answer two main questions. First of all, we need to get a sense of where we’re heading. And then if that’s not a satisfactory outcome, what do we need to do differently in order to get to a safer and more sustainable energy future?
And the design of the scenarios that we do is meant to reflect the debates over climate and energy issues, but also then the science. And so when the IPCC published its special report on 1.5 degrees, it was natural for us then to look at: well, what would that mean for the energy sector? What sort of transformation are we talking about? And so that’s the reason why we produced this roadmap to net zero emissions by 2050.
We found that it is dramatic. You do need to change, in every way, the production and use of energy. But we tried to put in place different milestones, to give people an idea about what is actually involved. So for instance, in advanced economies like in Europe, in North America, you just have to get rid of unabated coal by 2030.
You need to have these huge improvements in efficiency, and buildings, and appliances, and so on. And by 2035, you can’t be selling traditional cars anymore with internal combustion engines. Also by the mid 2030s, you have to have a complete decarbonisation of your electricity supply in advanced economies, and no unabated coal for power generation anywhere.
And then by the time we get into the 2040s, you need to be making major progress in the more difficult areas like industry and long distance transport. You pretty much need to have cleaned up your power system completely. And that would then be necessary to get us to 2050 global net zero emissions.
And that’s a change of unprecedented speed and scale. It wasn’t a simple exercise from a modelling perspective; it’s not at all a simple exercise from a policy perspective either. And we’re not on track. And so there’s an awful lot we need to do in order to turn the system around, and get us on to that sort of 1.5 degree trajectory.
Lucy Yu: I’m going to quote a line from the 2021 World Energy Outlook report: “Every data point showing the speed of change in energy can be countered by another showing the stubbornness of the status quo”. What and who is driving this stubbornness, and how can we confront it?
Tim Gould: Well, there’s different ways to answer that question. There’s one which is more related to political economy, but I think the underlying issue is that the energy system is big. And there’s lots of inertia in there. Because you don’t turn over the capital stock very quickly. All of the cars, the trucks, the factories, the buildings, the power plants… I mean, all of that is stuff that we’ve built up over many years, over decades. And you’re not in a position to replace it all immediately.
So I think that’s the first thing to have in mind. And so there are things that you can do very quickly. Like when you have new, efficient light bulbs, I mean, within two or three years, if you are replacing everything that needs replacing, you can actually get through the whole global stock of light bulbs fairly quickly.
But when you’re talking about factories, they have long lifetimes. They have lifetimes of 30-40 years. And so you need to make sure that when you do come to replacing something or building something, you’re using the cleanest technologies that are available. But you also have to think carefully about: how do you tackle the existing stock, the stuff that we already have? And there’s many different examples of that.
But the one that we often come back to is that, in many parts of the world, notably in Asia, you have quite a young stock of coal-fired power plants. And so under normal circumstances, they would continue to operate and emit carbon for many years to come. So finding ways to get those existing plants out of the system: that’s the real challenge. Those are some of the hard yards of the decarbonisation process.
Giles Whittell: Tim there’s inertia, and there’s what Harold McMillan used to call “events”. And so between the last issue of the WEO report and the next one, which is due out in November, we’ve had a war in Europe, which has worsened the energy price crisis, produced a worst case scenario in the UK of six million households facing blackouts, rich European countries that thought they’d put coal behind them are bringing it back online, none of which suggests we’re moving in the right direction.
So how do you see things evolving by the time of the next WEO report, and how damaging is the current energy crisis going to be in pursuit of net zero?
Tim Gould: It’s a great question. And it’s one that we are thinking through very hard at the moment, as we are putting together the new outlook.
And of course, none of this is yet set in stone. I mean, the strong message that you’re getting from the International Energy Agency is that the lasting solutions to our current energy crisis are also the solutions that will help us deal with the climate crisis.
So we are pushing strongly for that alignment of our short-term reactions with our long-term goals. But naturally enough, there are elements of the current crisis that can set us back, and some countries and some companies are indeed looking to double down on aspects of their fossil fuels, when we think that they should be doubling down on clean energy technologies, on efficiency, and so on.
I think one of the things that you do see being driven home in the current energy crisis is that we need cleaner and more affordable energy.
So I think that, if you ask governments what they wish they’d done differently five or ten years ago to prepare themselves better for today, then of course you’re gonna come back to things that would help to insulate consumers and companies from the effects of high and volatile fossil fuel prices. And what does that mean? That means efficiency. That means switching to alternative fuels and technologies.
So I think there is an aspect of today’s crisis that just drives home how important it is for us to accelerate transitions. But as you can see, when you look at the news, I mean, that’s not the lesson that everyone is taking.
Lucy Yu: We mentioned in the introduction to this episode that the Guardian recently uncovered the fossil fuel industry’s short-term expansion plans. And those included several hundred, what are termed ‘carbon bombs’, in other words, gigantic oil and gas projects. Is it just the case that our addiction to fossil fuels is simply too overpowering?
Tim Gould: I don’t necessarily see that. I think that in the end, economics will play an important role in deciding how we move ahead. And it’s simply true that some of the clean technologies that we’re talking about: they are the least-cost options to meet our energy needs. And that’s even before you factor in the carbon price in many cases.
So there’s important economic drivers and technology drivers for the process of change. I think we also… if we look at the numbers for investment in different parts of the energy sector, I personally am a bit hesitant about the idea that there’s now a sort of big new rush of fossil fuel infrastructure coming through.
We are worried that investment in coal supply, I think, rose about ten per cent last year and in our view will probably rise another ten per cent this year. But if you look at oil and gas, the amount of money being spent in 2022 is still quite a long way below where it was in 2019. And 2019 was quite a long way below where it was in 2014.
So it’s not obvious that there is this major new push to build up long-lived fossil fuel infrastructure. In fact, many companies are a little bit hesitant about committing long-term capital to projects where you’ve got such uncertainty over the long term. And if you divide up the oil and gas industry into all its different components, it’s really only the national oil companies in the Middle East that are spending more than they did prior to COVID. So I think a little bit of context there is important.
We do, of course, need to be watchful about what happens on the supply side, but let’s also really focus on how we can curb fossil fuel demand. That’s the way that you bring down emissions, that’s the way that you get a secure and smoother energy transition.
Giles Whittell: Focusing on the UK for a moment, there was a recent report from the Climate Change Committee suggesting that ministers in this government are likely to renege on the UK’s 2050 greenhouse gas emissions commitments. The report talked about “major policy failures” and “scant evidence of delivery”. So what’s your take on the report?
Tim Gould: Yeah, I was really interested to read the findings from the Climate Change Committee, and they highlight things that need to be done differently, the areas where the government needs to step up.
To be honest, when I was reading through, I was impressed at the process that it represents. Because at least in the UK, you have a body that is widely recognised as authoritative, and it is holding the government’s feet to the fire on the promises that they’ve made on climate change. I think they do it very well.
So I worry about the findings, but to be honest, I worry a lot more about all the countries where there is no equivalent of the Climate Change Committee. Because I think there is a worry that when you look at the range of promises that have been made, that governments have sort of promised net zero by 2050, but when you ask the question: what are you doing now? What are you gonna deliver in the next two years, or the next four years, or by 2030? The delivery is an issue. And implementation of that promise is, of course, a big question.
And we see that very much in our own analysis. We have one scenario where we take governments at their word. For the first time after Glasgow, that delivers a cap on rising global temperatures of less than two degrees.
But if you look at what’s actually in place in terms of policies that governments have implemented, or the things that they’ve actually announced in terms of the detail about heat, and about transport, and about power, you don’t get anything like as encouraging a picture. In fact, you get a stabilisation of emissions at a high level, and that obviously is not enough to deliver anything like a stabilisation in rising global temperatures.
So it’s that delivery gap worldwide that I think we all need to be focused on. Who’s tracking progress? Where’s the accountability? I think those are the big questions.
Lucy Yu: And picking up on that: what excites you most about the progress you’ve seen in your annual reports? Are there things that make you hopeful that we can achieve net zero emissions by 2050?
Tim Gould: We released some work recently looking at where governments, or where companies, are putting their money. Because we found that that’s a very reliable indicator of where sentiment is. And there are some elements that are encouraging. So the amount of investment in clean energy transitions has picked up quite fast since 2020: so an average of well over ten per cent per year.
And there are some technologies that, if you maintained today’s growth rates, that’s broadly consistent with what you would need to get to a net zero emissions system by 2050. So solar in that respect looks good. The amount of money that consumers are putting into buying electric vehicles, likewise. The amount of money from a much lower base that’s going into battery energy storage: that’s also broadly speaking on track.
Now I wouldn’t underplay the difficulty to keep high rates of growth going over time. I mean, that’s clearly a massive task. But there are elements of the picture that are more encouraging.
But those technologies on their own are not gonna deliver what we need, because the energy system is big, and complex, and it will require quite a wide range of technologies in order to get us to where we need to go.
There are elements of the picture that I think show that this can be done. And in many cases, that’s because we have this virtuous combination of policy support, innovation, and low costs. There’s an awful lot more to do. But there are some bright signs.
Lucy Yu: So a mixed picture, but actually plenty of cause for optimism?
Tim Gould: Yeah, I think so. I mean, listing the things that remain to be done is probably not going be the most useful way to spend time, but some of the things that we’re worried about at the moment: can we really expand the clean energy supply chains as quickly as we’re gonna need to?
Because since 2020, there have been some signs of cost inflation for wind turbines, for solar panels, for some other elements. And while there’s been huge investment in many parts of the world, particularly in China, to help us get down the cost of solar panels, the result is now that we do have quite a concentrated supply chain for solar PV. We need to make those supply chains more diversified, more resilient, to allow us then to deploy as quickly as we’re gonna need.
Giles Whittell: So we’ve just heard two fascinating interviews with highly acclaimed climate and energy experts. My personal take away from Johan Rockström’s contribution was his reminder – very sobering reminder – that we’ve really never been here before. Not since the last ice age, not since before the last ice age. Not in the last three million years have we had as much carbon in the atmosphere or the prospect of two degrees of warming. And he made the point that, until the middle of the last century or thereabouts, temperatures have moved just half a degree at most from the norm either way
Lucy Yu: I can hardly believe we’ve reached the end of the series!
Giles Whittell: I can’t either!
Lucy Yu: We’ve learned a huge amount over the past six episodes, and hopefully debunks some of the common things that you might have previously heard about the energy transition: everything from the idea that it will be slow, and inequitable, and inefficient, right through to the concept that it’s only happening in the West.
So Giles, any highlights from the rest of the series? I’ve really enjoyed speaking to all of our guests. I think a particular highlight for me was speaking to Adam Dorr. He, if you remember, was the research director of ReThinkX, and he really believes we’re on the cusp of the most profound disruption of the energy sector in over a century.
Giles Whittell: I agree. His vision really stuck with me. And in fact, I bounced around the building here telling people all about it.The idea of this massive oversupply of renewable energy, not just enough to power everything we need, but enough to fill up vast reserves of hydrogen as an energy storage vehicle… it was great stuff.
On a slightly less visionary scale, with the great merit of being real and current, we heard Sarah Merrick from Ripple talking about the scheme that they run whereby you can own a small bit of the wind turbine that gives you your energy. That seemed, to me, scalable – and the other merit, besides being real, of having really, really enthusiastic backers wherever they’ve rolled it out.
So this episode has been all about why we’re here, talking about the energy transition, to protect the environment and to prevent the catastrophic consequences of failing to do so. Clearly there is a huge amount more to be done, but as Tim pointed out, the coalition of investment, innovation, and the right sort of policymaking is critical. As is the attention of some of the brightest minds from around the world, some of whom we hope you’ve enjoyed hearing from over the course of this series.
Lucy Yu: That’s it for this season of Inside the Energy Transition, the podcast from Tortoise Media and Centre for Net Zero.
A big thank you to our guests this week: Johan Rockström, and Tim Gould.
And as always, find out more about Centre for Net Zero and what we do on centrefornetzero.org.
Giles Whittell: And that’s it from us – we hope you’ve enjoyed our season.
Lucy Yu: The episode was produced by Phil Sansom and Izzy Woolgar. The executive producer is Ceri Thomas.
Giles Whittell: If you enjoyed it, feel free to recommend us to a friend. Thank you very much for listening.