Climate-neutral EU before 2050

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From pv magazine 06/2020

The announcement of the European Green Deal Investment Plan in January revealed the European Commission’s priorities in mobilizing at least €1 trillion in sustainable investment over the next decade, with the aim of creating a framework to facilitate public and private investments in the service of a climate-neutral, competitive, and inclusive European economy. This package includes a Just Transition Mechanism, which will ensure that no European is left behind during the energy transition. It will provide support – through financing as well as upskilling and reskilling – to workers in former coal regions most affected by the changes. The commission has also presented the EU Climate Law, which aims to implement the goal of climate-neutrality by 2050 into law that is legally binding for all member states. These are all very promising developments.

However, in order to achieve climate-neutrality and comply with the ambitious Paris Agreement target, we must go a step further in our commitment to a clean society and economy: pursuing a European energy system that is entirely based on renewable energy. A 100% renewables-based energy system is the cleanest and most cost-effective scenario for reaching the twin goals of the European Green Deal and the Paris Agreement, and does so without any potentially environmentally harmful tricks, such as carbon sinks and sequestration.

This was the principal finding from Finland’s LUT University and SolarPower Europe’s new study, “100% Renewable Europe: How to make Europe’s energy system climate neutral before 2050,” which modeled a cost-optimal energy transition in Europe. The results of the study indicate that the commission’s climate ambitions can be achieved a decade earlier than the 2050 target.

The first-of-its-kind model mapped a 100% renewable pathway to achieving climate-neutrality for the European energy system. The study presents three transition pathways – low, medium, and high ambition. Perhaps the most surprising finding of the study is the fact that the low-ambition scenario is not only the most environmentally damaging, with the lowest reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, but also the least cost-effective. Indeed, the 100% renewable scenarios (both medium and high ambition) are less environmentally and economically burdensome, resulting in lower per unit energy costs, and achieving the climate-neutrality target.

Big ambitions

A simple answer emerged from the study: a high rate of electrification, massive acceleration of solar and renewables, and strong sectoral integration. Decarbonization efforts are needed across all sectors of the European economy, and with an increase in electrification and battery storage, the power, heating, and transport sectors can all contribute to the climate-neutrality target. An electrification rate of around 85% will result in significant efficiency gains for the European energy system. Further, it will pave the way for renewable hydrogen to contribute to the full decarbonization of heat and transport sectors by 2030 – essential for hard-to-abate sectors such as marine and aviation, as well as heavy industry and chemicals.

A major finding of this report is that a 100% renewables system in Europe will be primarily a solar story. Solar PV and wind represent the two main pillars of the energy transition, supplying over 90% of power demand in the long term. Due to its unique versatility – capable of being installed in any size for distributed and centralized applications – and combined with its strong cost-competitiveness, solar will generate over 60% of the electricity in both 100% renewable scenarios modeled for 2040 (high ambition) and 2050 (medium ambition). At this penetration level, solar would employ over 4 million people in Europe by 2050 – providing high-skilled jobs, particularly in former coal regions that need revitalization.

To achieve the targets set out in the European Green Deal and fulfill the Paris Agreement’s obligations, policymakers must act now, and ensure that the next decade sets the pathway with the right policy and financing frameworks to enable unprecedented growth of renewables.

Let’s start with enshrining the climate-neutrality target into law and adjust the EU 2030 Greenhouse Gas reduction goal to a level that complies with the 1.5 degree target. In this context, it is essential to upgrade, expand, and modernize Europe’s electricity grids in order to enable the rapid deployment of distributed flexibility resources and demand response, such as electric vehicle charging stations, heat pumps, and battery storage. To foster solar’s immense growth in the coming decades, the potential of large-scale solar must be unlocked, and a pan-European solar PV rooftop program should be developed, which would allow installation on all suitable buildings, enabling citizens to become active prosumers.

Naysayers are likely to lament the cost of such a transition to climate-neutrality, but acting slowly will not make it any less costly. In fact, a low-ambition pathway with a lower level of renewables is more expensive than a 100% renewables scenario. The modeling is clear: the most cost-effective way of achieving climate-neutrality by 2050 is a 100% renewables system. The low-ambition pathway, which only reaches 62% renewables by 2050 – thus missing both the targets of the Green Deal and the Paris Agreement – is not only potentially environmentally disastrous, but also 6% more costly.

To become the world’s first climate-neutral continent, we must act boldly and act now. Our study shows that opting for a 100% renewable energy system in Europe is possible from a technical perspective and is also the most affordable and safest option to achieve climate-neutrality by 2050. Now, we must develop the right policies to ramp up deployment of clean energy technologies that we have readily available right here in Europe.

To reach zero greenhouse gas emissions, employ millions of people in the clean energy sector, and maintain European leadership in innovative renewable technologies, let’s commit to a 100% renewable Europe.

About the author

SolarPower Europe CEO, Walburga Hemetsberger has led SolarPower Europe since February 2019. She has worked in Brussels for more than 18 years – mostly in the energy sector. Before joining SolarPower Europe, she headed the VERBUND Representation Office in Brussels and was a board member of Hydrogen Europe. Her previous experience includes her roles as the head of the EU Representation Office at VERBUND for nine years, as a financial and capital markets adviser at the Association of German Public Banks and the European Association of Public Banks, and as a competition lawyer at Haarmann Hemmelrath. She also served as a parliamentary assistant to an Austrian MEP and has experience in the DG Competition Merger Control Task Force.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own, and do not necessarily reflect those held by pv magazine.