A delayed energy transition would cause twice as many CO2 emissions as a decarbonization of the energy sector by 2080 and even nine times more than a rapid energy transition by 2030, as researchers have calculated.

In order to slow down climate change, it is necessary to phase out fossil fuels. However, such an energy transition generates additional CO2 emissions, because raw materials have to be mined and transported for the construction and installation of new wind turbines, solar systems and the like, and the production of concrete, steel and semiconductor components also costs energy and generates emissions. As long as there is not enough “green” electricity, at least part of this energy demand will have to be covered by fossil sources – and this generates additional greenhouse gas emissions.

But how high are the additional CO2 emissions from the energy transition? This is what Corey Lesk from the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University in New York and his colleagues have investigated. In their study, they analyzed how much energy the decarbonization of the energy sector requires and how the pace of this transition affects the CO2 emissions generated in the process. The calculations were based on the NETSET model, which quantifies the total energy requirement for generating electricity from twelve different energy sources.

For their calculation, the researchers considered three scenarios: a rapid, a gradual and a delayed energy transition. With the rapid energy transition required for the 1.5-degree climate target, power generation would have to be largely decarbonized by 2030 – a rather unrealistic scenario, as Lesk and his team also admit.

More realistic is the scenario of a gradual energy transition, in which 4.5 terawatts of new wind and solar power plants are added worldwide every year. In 2050, electricity production from the sun and wind will reach a plateau of around 100 terawatts and cover around 80 percent of global primary energy requirements. By 2080, fossil fuels would have been completely replaced. In the third scenario, a delayed energy turnaround, only around 2.6 terawatts of solar and wind power are added annually worldwide and some of the electricity will still be generated from fossil fuels in 2100.

The analyzes showed that these three scenarios not only differ in the speed of decarbonization, but also in the extent of the additional CO2 emissions. Because the faster the available amount of renewable energy increases, the more green electricity can be used for the transition. This in turn reduces the emissions required for raw material procurement, production and construction.

In concrete terms, the additional emissions of a rapid energy transition by 2030 would total less than 20 billion tons of CO2. In the gradual scenario, there would be around 95 billion additional tons of CO2 emissions by the year 2100. If, on the other hand, the energy transition were delayed and some of the energy was still generated from fossil fuels by 2100, the CO2 emissions would be 185 billion tons of CO2 – about twice as high. That CO2 output is equivalent to five to six years of total current global CO2 emissions, the team explains.

The pace of the transition also depends on how much of humanity’s remaining CO2 budget has to be used for the energy transition. In the rapid scenario, it is 5.5 percent of the emissions still available for the 1.5 degree target. If the energy transition were delayed, it would be 8.4 percent of the remaining CO2 budget. “The message is that it takes energy to rebuild the global energy system and we need to take that into account,” says Lesk. “But the way we approach this transition is not negligible: the faster you bring the renewables to the grid, the more the transition can also be supplied with these energies.”

Conversely, delaying the energy transition could make climate protection even more difficult – because the transition itself then causes more emissions. “Our values ​​only indicate the lower limit,” emphasizes Lesk. “The upward range could be much higher.” On the one hand, only the CO emissions were taken into account, not those of other greenhouses, which could account for another 40 percent. On the other hand, the raw material and energy requirements for secondary structures such as new power lines or power storage were not recorded. Indirect consequences of the increased extraction of raw materials such as deforestation and other changes in land use are also not recorded.

“Despite these limitations, we conclude that transition emissions can be greatly reduced if decarbonization is accelerated,” the researchers write. “This gives a new urgency to measures for the rapid switch to renewable energies.” Because if the energy transition and decarbonization are delayed, the whole thing will not only become considerably more expensive, it will also make climate protection more difficult. (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2022; doi:10.1073/pnas.2123486119)

Quelle: PNAS, Columbia University

This article was written by Nadja Podbregar

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The original of this article “More speed in the energy transition reduces costs” comes from scinexx.