World at tipping point for new era of clean energy | RenewEconomy

World at tipping point for new era of clean energy

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The Climate Commissioner says this year could see the beginning of the clean energy era – a future very different to what we know now.

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1. Taking the long view it is clear that we have come an enormous way in 10 years in tackling climate change.

– When I wrote the Weather Makers there was very little public awareness of climate change. However, since 2006 climate change has dominated Australian media and political debate.

– A decade ago there was little business and government activity. Today the Federal government has introduced the Clean Energy Legislation, polluters are now paying for their pollution, a new industry coalition of 330 companies has been created to hasten action, and more people than ever are shifting to clean energy.

– We are taking early steps on a multi-decade pathway to transform our economy and society. There is an analogy to be drawn with the process of building Europe’s cathedrals. Those stunning buildings required long-term thinking, vision and leadership. Similarly we are building a new energy economy and it will take decades. But it will provide our children and grandchildren with a better future.

2. There is still more to be done, but it’s heartening to know that wherever the Climate Commission has visited there has been a real thirst for action.

– Wherever the Climate Commission has travelled around Australia we have heard that Australians have a passion for renewable energy. We have also heard that there is a real desire from Australians to contribute and do their bit.

– What we’ve noticed is that Australians are quietly getting on with it. They are using energy smarter in their businesses and homes and they are installing solar panels and more efficient appliances amongst other things. We’ve been impressed with the capacity of Australians to come together, at school, at work and in the community to use their ingenuity to find solutions that are good for the environment and reduce costs.

3. This year may well come to be seen as a tipping point, the beginning of the clean energy era.

– My optimism comes from four factors: 1) enormous advances in many clean technologies; 2) widespread public support for clean energy; 3) increasing global investment in renewable energy; 4) the dramatic drop in the price of wind and particularly solar technology.

– Just last week it was announced that Snowtown, set to become South Australia’s largest wind farm, will introduce world-leading gearless drive wind turbine technology.

– Globally, big changes are afoot. Global investment in renewable power and fuels has increased 6- fold since 2004, standing at $257 billion in 2011. According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, $US187 billion ($176bn) was invested across the globe in new plants generating electricity from the wind, sun, waves and biomass, while $US157bn was invested for natural gas, oil and coal. We are starting to see a shift from investment in the old polluting sources to new cleaner sources of energy.

A number of countries are leading the way:

– Germany will have renewable energy as its energy centerpiece. It’s already a leader in renewables, having 50 gigawatts of installed wind and solar power, and its new energy plan will provide invaluable experience about how industrialised nations can transition from the traditional fossil-fuel fed power grid, to a clean-energy based distributed, intelligent power grid. The German experience could prove transformative and be highly influential on other countries.

– Countries like China and South Korea are making strides to position themselves as world leaders in the production of renewable energy technology. South Korea has ambitions to become the world’s seventh largest green economic power by 2020 and the fifth largest by 2050. China had more installed renewable energy generation capacity than any other country in the world by 2011 and aims to increase the proportion of non-fossil fuels in energy consumption to 11.4 per cent by 2015. China now represents 50% of the global market for renewable energy.

– Meanwhile, the United States has made major contributions to research, development and implementation of renewable energy. Wind energy in the US hit a new benchmark, reaching 50 gigawatts of electric capacity in the second quarter of 2012.

– The uptake of renewable energy is happening fast and costs are dropping more quickly than expected. The cost of producing solar photovoltaic cells has dropped 75 per cent in the past four years and 45 per cent in the past 12 months.

– With so much global momentum building when historians look back in years to come they may well come to see this year as a tipping point towards a clean energy era.

4. The Earth’s climate is changing faster than expected. 2012 already has been a year of important milestones.

– The amount of carbon dioxide, the main global warming pollutant, in our atmosphere broke a new record this year, hitting higher levels than at any time in the last 800,000 years. Monitoring stations across the Arctic have now measured carbon dioxide levels at 400parts per million, and the rest of the world is expected to follow. The milestone represents a more than 40% increase in carbon dioxide since the industrial revolution.

– In mid-2012 we saw unprecedented melting of the Greenland ice cap. 97% melted in just 4 days, a faster rate than at any other time in recorded history

– The US has experienced deepening drought, record heatwaves, and unusual extreme weather. June broke or tied 3,215 high-temperature records across the United States. July 2012 was the hottest July on record in the US, breaking a record set in the infamous Dust Bowl years of the 1930s. 63% of the US is now in drought.

– The global temperature and sea-levels are rising to near the highest levels scientists expect.

– Recent analysis by NASA scientist James Hansen and his team found that there is no other explanation than climate change for the increasing frequency and intensity of world-wide extreme weather over the last 60 years.

– The changes are deeply concerning and reflect the fact that although progress is being made we must accelerate action.

5. Australia has great capacity for renewable energy but we are not using our most abundant natural resources.

– Australia has enormous clean energy potential and action on climate change will help unlock those resources. With its sun, wind, wave and geothermal resources Australia has some of the best renewable resources in the world. Yet we are a late starter. Our worst solar resources are equivalent to some of Germany’s best. However, Germany is a world leader in installed solar (photo voltaic) while Australia is lagging behind.

– The world is changing and Australia needs to be prepared if our economy, society and environment are to prosper in future. The global pressure to reduce emissions is only likely to increase as the climate shifts and global action accelerates.

– We need national leadership to prepare us for the clean energy era. Costs will only increase and the opportunities will slip through our hands if we do not

6. The future energy system will not look the same as the past.

– The world is moving to using energy smarter and using energy from cleaner sources. We will see intelligent grids using more distributed sources of energy – rather than just the traditional large power plants. We will see more pro-sumers – people that are both consuming and producing energy. We will see renewable energy playing a greater role.

7. The future will be very different world to what we know now.

– When we try to look forward a decade, with the last decade as our yardstick, what do we imagine our country will be like? It’s hard to avoid the idea that solar and wind will be commonplace, and that this will drive a transformation in how we move and use electricity.

– Globally it’s clear that an irreversible trend has set in. Neither India nor Africa will follow the traditional model of economic development, but are likely to base their energy systems on renewables, driving down price and pioneering new ways of using clean power.

– This is now the critical decade. It is clear that energy systems and the world’s climate are changing more rapidly than we thought. The case is stronger than ever for strong action in Australia.

This article was drawn from speaking notes prepared by Chief Commissioner Professor Tim Flannery for an address to leading businesses and organisations at the Committee for Economic Development of Australia in Melbourne on Tuesday. 

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  1. mockjock 8 years ago

    While I agree with most of Prof Flannery’s points we need to be careful not to feed the denialists.

    Claiming that “97% melted in just 4 days” ( implying that 97% of the ice mass melted , leaving 3% ) is an oversimplification of what is justifiably an alarming melt but a more accurate statement is “97 per cent of the vast mass is undergoing some form of melting on it’s surface” which is an unprecedented melt and incredibly worrying but its not the same thing as losing 97% of its ice.

  2. David Rossiter 8 years ago

    I understand from Renew Economy briefs that Australia installed more solar PV than Germany did last year – this fact seems counter to the statement in section 5 of your document.


    • Giles Parkinson 8 years ago

      Aussie beat Germany last year only in small rooftop systems under 10kW. Germany also installs a bunch of medium, large and utility scale systems which Australia has done little or none of – so last year was around 7GW for Germany and 800MW or so for Australia, and the final medal tally goes around 32GW for germany and 1.7GW for Australia.

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