RENEWABLE BUILD-OUT: The IPCC foresees a massive build-out of renewable energy, such as wind and solar, along with continued use of biomass for cooking and limited building of new nuclear power plants. Image: The White House Blog: Innovations
UNITED NATIONS -- The world's leading climate change research organization issued a report yesterday that has renewable energy boosters cheering, as it foresees substantial growth in alternative energy sources over the next 40 years.
But the conclusions reached by that report's authors are colored with multiple caveats and uncertainties not captured by initial media coverage. And what the group chooses to identify as "renewable energy" incorporates one controversial practice while leaving others out.
Namely, the coalition of climate scientists includes traditional wood-burning in poor households' cookstoves as an example of renewable energy, though many experts say this is one of the leading causes of deforestation in the world. The IPCC also chose to ignore nuclear energy in its latest assessment, potentially raising the ire of industry supporters who have in the past celebrated nuclear for emitting no greenhouse gases.
At the close of a gathering of government representatives in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its first-ever detailed analysis of alternative energy technologies and their potential role in mitigating greenhouse gas emissions.
The "Special Report on Renewable Energy Sources and Climate Change Mitigation" by the IPCC's Working Group III is 1,000 pages of detailed analysis of how renewable energy usage can expand to 2050, summed up in a heavily distributed 26-page "Summary for Policymakers," a draft of which was leaked to the press early.
Among the IPCC's biggest findings mentioned is its estimate that renewable energy could provide nearly 80 percent of the globe's power by 2050, if fully supported by governments eager to maximize its potential.
That conclusion took many by surprise -- most other comprehensive assessments offered by the energy industry itself conclude that alternative sources will contribute a much lower percentage of the world's power over the coming decades. But the 80 percent contribution estimated by the IPCC represents the most optimistic outcome, one that report authors say is one that's far from certain or 100 percent accurate.
What happens to the forests?
The IPCC is careful to note that this estimate is at the very highest end of a range of scenarios that could play out. Of more than 100 alternative future scenarios, the IPCC narrowed these down to four primary ones, each dependent on how quickly renewable energy technologies and advance and how robustly government policies support their deployment.
Still, the average of all IPCC projections shows renewables supplanting fossil fuels at a faster clip than previously thought.
"More than half of the scenarios show a contribution from RE [renewable energy] in excess of a 17 percent share of primary energy supply in 2030, rising to more than 27 percent in 2050," the IPCC says in the report summary. "The scenarios with the highest RE shares reach approximately 43 percent in 2030 and 77 percent in 2050."
Alternative energy supporters the world over were quick to hail the findings.
In the United States, the American Wind Energy Association, National Hydropower Association, Geothermal Energy Association and Biomass Power Association issued a joint release celebrating the results. They declared that the report shows the heralded IPCC agrees with what they've been saying all along, that "with the right policies to support growth, renewable power sources could dominate the world's energy supply by 2050."
But one complicating factor potentially cancels out much of the optimism espoused yesterday.
The IPCC reaches its estimates by counting among renewable energy sources "traditional biomass" -- the widespread practice in the developing world of scavenging wood for producing charcoal or to burn directly for home heating and cooking.