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Greater and smarter electrification is key to combatting climate change

image credit: Matthias Rebellius, Siemens AG Management Board Member
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Blog posts FORESIGHT Climate & Energy

FORESIGHT Climate & Energy publishes weekly feature articles and expert opinions on the solutions and remaining barriers to a clean energy economy. We focus on expert analysis and in-depth...

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Businesses and governments can work together to utilise the latest smart technologies in our cities and factories

Global warming is real. Rising greenhouse gas emissions threaten to make coastal regions and river deltas uninhabitable for billions of people. To soften the impact of climate change, we must ramp up electrification using green power. The question is: how can governments and businesses offer support?

Humankind needs to take its medicine—decarbonisation through electrification. About 80% of global, annual energy consumption—roughly 14,400 million tons of oil equivalent—comes from fossil fuels. Every ton of oil, or coal, or gas releases damaging carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Meanwhile, energy demand is rising. Six hundred new coal plants are planned worldwide to meet this demand. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), global electricity demand is rising faster than the output from solar and wind, with renewables expected to meet only about half of the projected rise in demand.

To stop pumping carbon into the atmosphere we must increase renewable energy to substitute power from fossil fuels; increase energy efficiency to limit the impact of growing demand; and substitute fossil fuel consumption with electrified applications. This will test the stability of existing grids as the output from renewables results in variable—and at times volatile—energy supply and power flows.

The answer lies in technology—in smart grids balanced by artificial intelligence, in e-mobility and smart buildings. Business and government both have a role to play. Politics must lead by coordinating global policy and setting the regulatory framework. Over 130 countries seek to reduce their carbon emissions to net-zero by, or before, 2050.

ACCELERATE THE TRANSITION

Governments can help accelerate this transition in several ways including carbon pricing and incentives for renewables investment. They can also legislate for any new buildings to use smart infrastructure and encourage existing buildings to improve energy efficiency. Thirdly, electrification of transport will need to be further incentivised including charging infrastructure.

Next, governments can provide funding for research into carbon capture and storage technologies. Finally, additional support for small-scale and off-grid solutions will increase access to electricity.

More than 10% of the world’s population burns fossil fuels because they lack electricity. Cities and governments should provide funding to bridge the gaps in urban and rural power networks and for standalone, individual solutions – for microgrids and battery storage.

Digitalisation is key to sustainability. Big data, 5G, the internet of things, connected devices, automation, electric vehicles, smart buildings, smart grids and smart cities empower us to save resources and eliminate carbon. Digitalisation gives industry—and society—the tools they need to reach decarbonisation goals by improving existing infrastructure at an affordable cost.

Businesses must take responsibility for more than just electrifying their own operations, however. Companies must also help and encourage their partners and supply chains. The decarbonisation of supply chains is complex and time-consuming.

It means asking tens of thousands of suppliers—themselves supplied by thousands more companies—to disclose energy usage and sources in great detail. It means helping them to implement low-carbon power across all their operations and it means encouraging them to invest in greater energy efficiency.

CITY ACTION

Cities must ensure that business has access to clean power. Unless we act now, we will not reach the Paris climate goals. The time has never been better to care about smart infrastructure with investments to make cities smarter expected to jump from $100 billion today to $250 billion in 2030.

Cities can achieve much on their own, without national governments. Small steps add up—planning denser cities, electrifying public transport, setting tighter building regulations, investing in smart grids. And if everything is powered with renewable energy, the climate crisis will be remembered as a near miss.

Global warming is a psychological challenge as well as a technological and regulatory problem. We need to think differently and prioritise electrification and decarbonisation over economic growth and higher profit.

Everyone deserves a prosperous life. The challenge lies in doing it sustainably. Of course, electricity will not be our only source of power. Hydrogen made with renewables will be crucial to decarbonising sectors like aviation, shipping and trucking and making them sustainable.

This is going to be a long haul. It is complex. Reducing carbon emissions to zero and then removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is a huge task. The alternative does not bear thinking about. Without a roadmap, without bold government action and without business playing its part we will not make it.•

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