The 10 years that will change the world of energy

29-09-2022 | News

A new paradigm for the development of the energy system that aims at optimizing the efficiency of supply sources according to sustainability criteria is fundamental and urgent.

by Alessandro Lanza


It is a fact that economic growth has so far largely fueled global warming. This correlation appears evident from the proportionality between economic activity, relative energy use and consumption of natural resources. It is a socio-economic model based on the exponential growth that humanity has brought as a dowry from time immemorial and which has been developing for more than three centuries, starting from the first industrial revolution. Today as never, however, this model highlights the narrowness of the sources that support its functioning. Suffice it to consider that the average per capita fuel consumption has increased tenfold in the last 300 years and that today fossil sources still represent the 80% of the global energy mix, thus linking energy consumption to greenhouse gas emissions. and ultimately leading to increasing negative externalities from a climatic point of view.

It is possible to overcome the correlation between GDP growth and energy consumption, today unsustainable especially in some industrialized countries? Are there exceptions to the correlation between economic development and exponential increase in energy consumption? What are the determining factors capable of influencing, if not reversing, the dynamics that characterize our society in relation to energy needs? 

In this context, the repeated alarms launched by theIntergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are unequivocal: we are now close to reaching the internationally agreed global warming threshold of 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels. The only way to reverse the dangerous trend is to urgently step up our efforts towards decarbonization. It is, in fact, completely misleading to think of climate change as something next. We are already in it. In each IPCC scenario, the global average temperature will increase at least until mid-century and, at this rate, the threshold of 1.5 degrees will be reached by 2040. In the best scenario, the one with zero emissions by 2050, it could still be contain the rise in temperatures within 2 degrees.

In the current public debate it is still legitimate to ask whether, starting today and in the next 10 years, a crucial period for undertaking a transition path towards a global decarbonisation of energy systems and the consequent achievement of zero emissions by 2050, the only choice we have. available both between a model that allows the split of the economic growth-emissions binomial or a sharp cut in economic growth in the terms we know. Ça va sans dire: the decision must necessarily fall on the first option, with all the difficulties and unknowns that it imposes. Suffice it to say that in order to achieve the sustainability objectives set for 2050, the current projections on global population growth and per capita GDP require an average reduction of CO2 emissions per unit of real GDP equal to 9% per year, while in the last thirty years this rate fell by only 1.8% year-on-year.

Strong science but weak politics

If the alarm bell sounded by science on the need for climate action is strong and constant, even if it has been activated for some time, the level of receptivity of politics at a global level, a fundamental component for the design and implementation of strategies aimed at transition towards a sustainable model, remains insufficient. If the industrialized countries are moving, albeit in an uneven way, some levers to reduce emissions, the developing countries, with the giant India in the lead, while recognizing the importance and danger of the problem, are not able or they do not intend to slow down an economic development which still represents the top priority. Positions that, moreover, it is not peaceful to oppose given that, as the IPCC points out, the historical cumulative emissions, "the source of the climate crisis that the world must face today", are mostly attributable to developed countries. 

In terms of political action, an important signal certainly comes from the European Union which, in September 2020, set a reduction in emissions equal to 55% compared to 1990 as a goal for 2030, raising the bar compared to the 40% previously set. A goal that it has set itself to achieve through ambitious plans such as the Fit for 55 Package, launched in July 2021, and aiming for a strong push for the economic relaunch based on green technologies (Next Generation EU).

Even more than in terms of the effective reduction of emissions - the European share is equal to 9% of global emissions - the position of the European Union marks a clear boundary in the field of politics, demonstrating that the shared determination to pursue ambitious objectives for a effective climate action is possible; furthermore, recusing the conviction that reducing emissions means sacrificing development. In fact, since 1990 emissions have decreased by 23% against a GDP growth of 60%, a share not yet sufficient to achieve the set objectives but which subverts the trend of proportionality between economic growth and emissions.

A model of systemic change

If economic degrowth to achieve climate goals is in no case an option, a common commitment is needed for formulation of a systemic change model that it is punctual and sustainable from an economic point of view, as well as fair from a social point of view. This systemic change necessarily passes from fundamental elements such as the ability to invest massively in the decarbonisation of energy systems, especially with public investments, for the construction of new energy infrastructures and to facilitate the development of green technologies. disruptive for the removal of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.

Decarbonisation which, precisely, can only take place starting from the energy system, the starting and ending point of the transition. The impact that a global energy system with low or no consumption of fossil fuels would have on other sectors of our society, given their interconnectedness, is as positive as it is difficult to quantify, given the cascade reaction that this transition would have on all socio-economic vectors. connected to it. The processes leading to this step are innumerable and partially unknown.

The electrification of end uses and economic sectors is certainly relevant for this purpose, as well as the ability to create energy systems capable of passing through different generation sources (systems smart), so as to provide economical and reliable low-carbon solutions. Renewable sources undoubtedly represent the basis of the new man-energy paradigm, but in temporal and economic terms they are still difficult to quantify, due to the development and reliability limits of some technologies. 

The relationship between cost and competitiveness of decarbonisation technologies represents a further factor of crucial importance. The private sector certainly plays a fundamental role in overcoming these limits: the creation of adequate ones therefore appears necessary incentives that facilitate investments by private entities in research, development and technological innovation.

Finally, it is necessary to mention a theme that is too often overlooked, that ofadaptation to climate change. The timing and investments necessary for the realization of a technological advancement capable of accelerating and consolidating a low carbon impact economy, combined with the difficulties of involving the main emitters in common climate policies and validated by scientific evidence, make the need to adapt a fundamental virtue to be pursued by the international community. Forgetting it would be an unforgivable mistake, causing both predictable and huge economic and social costs.

Alessandro Lanza he is Executive Director of the Eni Enrico Mattei Foundation (FEEM).

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