Why do we need to Decarbonize our Energy System?
Updated: Nov 24, 2020
The need to mitigate global climate change and other environmental impacts related to energy use has placed unprecedented attention to energy. Therefore, understanding the role energy plays in these concerns requires an awareness of how energy is produced and consumed, and physical systems that transform primary energy into secondary energy carriers and ultimately the services energy provides.
Till today, most of the energy used for heating, cooling, lighting, mobility and other energy services come from burning fossil fuels and burning of coal, oil and gas has been inextricably linked to the rising levels of greenhouse gases in Earth’s atmosphere and is a leading contributor of climate change. Therefore, in order to mitigate global climate change and other environmental impacts related to energy we need to implement a shift in where we get our energy from and the way we consume it which I would say that is one of the grand challenges facing our planet today. The world’s scientists agree that we are on a path towards disaster that can only be stopped by weaning ourselves off our fossil fuel habit. But that leaves us with a problem. How do we ensure the lights stay on?
First of all, we need to find carbon neutral ways to meet our growing energy needs in environmental friendly way. The good news is that we already have renewables technologies in good shape (solar PV, onshore wind, offshore wind etc.) to help us decarbonize our energy system. I am saying it because renewable energy generation technologies such as wind and solar have already gained a foothold in the energy market and are already in a position to knock out fossil fuel based unsustainable baseload plants. Renewables have already become the cheapest source of electricity in almost every country in the world today and still continue to be cheaper and more efficient. The most important thing that needs attention here is that even though renewables are nearly half of our electricity demand but electricity itself is only a quarter of our total energy consumption. It is because most of the energy intensive sectors (heating, transportation, some heavy industry, aviation, shipping etc.) still get their energy from fossil fuels that is less efficient than electricity. We need to electrify as much of this other forms of energy demand as we can using renewables energy sources.
As I mention renewables as an alternative to fossil fuels I am fully aware of the downsides of green energy as well (materials and energy usage, physical footprint, intermittency, high upfront costs, geographic limitations etc.) as they say that most sustainable energy is the energy that you don’t use. The call for significant investment in low-carbon technologies is important and necessary, but the unintended consequences of some approaches to the transition need to be clearly identified, especially for developing countries.
Transitioning to a sustainable energy future is not going be an easy journey and I agree that taking the road less travelled is not always the best choice but continuing along a road we have travelled post industrial revolution is a certain disaster.