Goal on renewables is a start, but it's time to think bigger

The IPCC has released a persuasive report on the future of renewable energy, but more ambitious goals could be achieved with the next decades.

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Renewable energy is predicted to lead the way across the world. This is the clear message that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) sent on Monday from Abu Dhabi, in the form of a new report on renewable energy sources and climate change mitigation.

At 900 pages, the report is the most comprehensive comparison published of research on the potential of renewable energy, and it confirms that renewables offer many advantages over fossil fuels and nuclear energy. The 164 scenarios considered show that renewable energy is projected to remain the fastest growing energy source. Renewables beat fossil fuels in global and regional availability, and most will see substantive cost reductions in the next decades, particularly in solar energy. Clean renewables such as wind will very soon beat nuclear and fossil fuels in lifetime cost.

While the scope of the report is worth noting, we think that even the IPCC underestimates the potential of renewable energy, especially when combined with top level energy efficiency.

The Energy Report, published by WWF International, shows that a switch to 100 per cent renewable energy worldwide is possible and economically viable within 40 years. WWF's vision, underpinned by a detailed scenario provided by the scientific consultancy Ecofys, is the most ambitious so far developed, taking the discussion further than any of the scenarios in the IPCC report.

Easy-to-reach oil and gas reserves are dwindling, and oil and gas sources such as tar sands and shale gas do not present viable alternatives because of their exorbitant environmental costs. For long-term climate protection, low-carbon solutions based on renewable energy and energy efficiency are the obvious way forward while costly nuclear, carbon capture and storage, or even new gas generation, are less effective.

It is also no coincidence that the IPCC report on renewable energy was launched in the UAE, the country with the sixth and seventh largest proven reserves of oil and gas respectively. Efforts are under way to develop renewables in order to diversify the economy and prepare for a post-fossil fuel era. The Masdar Initiative, Abu Dhabi's renewable energy target of 7 per cent by 2020, and the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) headquarters are just three positive examples.

The UAE's "ecological footprint initiative", a partnership coordinated by WWF's partner, Emirates Wildlife Society, has shown that by 2030, Abu Dhabi could reduce its carbon dioxide emissions by 40 per cent, powered by a rapidly growing renewable energy sector that surpasses current targets. At a time when demand for power is rising, the message to other countries in the region is: reinvest income from oil and gas into renewable energy, and unleash the incredible potential in these sun-rich Gulf states.

Although IPCC and WWF demonstrate the technical and economic case for renewable energy development, the potential is not yet being realised. Why?

Although investments in solar and wind are growing fast, economies of scale are only visible in a few countries such as China and Germany. From their success, we can learn how to overcome these barriers. Ambitious targets for renewables, removing fossil fuel subsidies and instead providing financial incentives for renewables would allow countries to benefit directly.

Substantial energy conservation measures should complement clean energy deployment. In our analysis, the world needs to invest between 1 and 2 per cent of global GDP annually, but over time will save up to 2 per cent or more of GDP depending on oil prices, technology innovations and government efforts.

Renewable energy could become the basis for switching to a sustainable economy that keeps the climate intact while offering many new development opportunities.

Despite being a "compromise" document among more than 100 governments, the new IPCC report is a landmark study demonstrating how fast renewable energy is developing and how far it can go. The world is moving towards renewable energy, and the UAE and other Gulf states can help to lead the way.

Dr Stephan Singer is the director for energy policy at WWF International. Tanzeed Alam is the director for policy at Emirates Wildlife Society - WWF UAE