The road to net zero is getting shorter, and there are fewer and fewer opportunities to get lost.

The road to net zero

Question: why does a famous Beatles song not describe the road to net zero? Answer:  because it is not a long and winding road— not anymore.

The economics for net zero is now looking so compelling that it would take a stupid and self-defeating wrong turning to get off it.

Here is the evidence:

Research from LUT University concludes that most studies investigating 100 per cent energy from renewables conclude it is “feasible worldwide at low cost.” The consensus also agrees that 2050 as the target for achieving it is eminently feasible.  

Perhaps the key phrase above is “low cost.” Not only is net zero viable, but it can also be achieved without sacrificing economic growth. The de-growthers are wrong.

Christian Breyer from LUT University and co-author of the report, says: “A quickly increasing number of researchers conclude that the entire energy system demand can be met based on renewables and that doing so will actually be cheaper in the long term while fulfilling sustainability requirements.” — Note another key phrase — “cheaper in the long term.” 

So let us review the situation. Climate change is happening, and hundreds of millions of people across the northern hemisphere felt its effect this year. Thanks largely to the war in Ukraine, the cost of energy has shot up. And renewables can solve both. So, what can possibly send us off the road to net zero? 

The dead ends

There are two threats, and they are related. Yes, the road to net zero is looking shorter —2050 isn’t far off, but humans have this short-term horizon. 2050 ‘feels’ like a long way off. And we still have to manage in the interim. The other problem is stupidity. The road to net zero is straight, but there are turnings off it. They all end in dead ends, but there is still a risk we might take them.

Not even risk

ESG, as is well known, is about risk; it presents a risk-based strategy considering environmental, social and governance issues. But the road to net-zero isn’t a risk-based route; the only risk lies in straying off the road, pandering to those who call for more fossil fuels and fracking just at the moment when the economic case for renewables is extraordinarily good.

Famous renewables expert Auke Hoekstra from the Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands said: “Many young people are depressed because they feel climate change cannot be stopped. We want to offer them hope by showing that our world can get all its energy needs from renewables at a price below that of fossil fuels. When we first proposed this, we were ridiculed, but this paper shows our ideas are now scientific mainstream.”

Evidence from Down Under

Consider Australia, a land where the previous prime minister paraded a lump of coal in parliament.

Covering the first full week of August, David Osmond produced a simulation showing that with Australia’s current renewable infrastructure, its national grid could have gone close to 100 per cent renewables with just five hours of storage.  

In the following week, the simulation showed that Australia was able to meet 100 per cent of its needs from renewables.  

In 2021, one-tenth of global electricity was generated by wind and solar.  

Mark Jacobson from Stanford University produced a paper showing that for 145 countries, the transition to 100 per cent renewables — wind, solar and storage — would pay for itself within six years. 

Professor Jacobson said: “Many additional uncertainties exist. One of the greatest is whether sufficient political will can be obtained to affect a transition at the rapid pace needed. However, if political will can be obtained, then transitioning the world entirely to clean, renewable energy should substantially reduce energy needs, costs, air pollution mortality, global warming, and energy insecurity while creating jobs, compared with business as usual.”

So therein lies the opportunity— a short transition time frame, cheaper energy. Therein lies the potential wrong turning — the dead end ending in permanent energy crises is still a risk — because of a lack of political will supported by an Ill-informed electorate and media.

Horses were used during the age of the motor car 

There is huge cognitive dissonance concerning renewables that threaten to impose unnecessary bumps and wrong turnings on the road to net zero.

First, there is a nonsensical view that net zero is causing high energy prices — when it is clear these higher prices are caused by rises in traditional fuels.

The reality, as this tweet points out: “UK gas power now costs a staggering  nine times more than new renewables.”  

Writing in the Guardian, Simon Evans claimed that UK gas demand would be around one-third greater without renewables.  

Also, according to the Guardian, planning permission refusals for solar farms are being refused at the highest rate in five years. 

Yet, according to the IEA (International Energy Agency), solar is the cheapest electricity in history.” 

Land footprint 

Yet others say wind and solar take up too much land.

According to Eden Renewables, in the UK, ports use the same amount of land as solar PV, airports use three times more land and mines almost five times more. Eden Renewables says: “If the whole UK was powered by renewables, solar would only use 2.1 per cent of land. That’s  only slightly more than is currently used for golf courses and other recreational activities.”

According to Carbon Commentary, for the UK to receive all of its energy (not just electricity) from renewables, onshore wind would require 12.5 of the UK’s land, but remember, other activities such as farming can share the land with wind turbines.  

You need oil to make wind turbines

Another common argument against renewables is that oil (and probably coal) is used in the process of making renewables, such as materials used in wind turbines.

This piece makes the point clear; people said something similar about the motor car replacing horses.  Consider how horses were used to transport the materials used in horseless carriages. Of course, they were; burgeoning technologies usually do overlap with the technologies they replace for a while. 

Of course, plastic is made from oil, and renewables use plastic.  But even this is slowly changing

The road to net-zero is paved with promise

The road to net zero is not paved with gold. Neither is it like the road to hell, paved with good intentions. But it is a very fine road, offering the promise of cheaper energy and many new jobs. 

This is something we need to celebrate, and given the good news it entails, we need to try and shorten it. (And given how the renewable revolution continues to surprise on the upside, this is quite viable.) What we must not do is allow vested interests to send us down one of the carbon intensive dead ends enroute.