Decarbonising global energy system will save ‘at least’ $12 trillion by 2050

Idea that going green is expensive is ‘just wrong’, Oxford research team says

Harry Cockburn
Environment Correspondent
Wednesday 14 September 2022 15:51 BST

Related: Europe Considering Heavy Investment In Space-Based Solar Power

​​The tumbling cost of renewable energy means transitioning away from fossil fuels over the next 30 years will save the world "at least $12 trillion", according to researchers at the University of Oxford.

The decarbonisation of the energy system will not only see a major reduction in the cost of producing and distributing energy, but will also allow for greater levels of energy to be produced and therefore help expand energy access around the planet.

The faster the transition to renewables occurs, the greater the potential for savings, the team found, and urged governments to recognise the enormous boost to the global economy, that abandoning fossil fuels will bring about.

"There is a pervasive misconception that switching to clean, green energy will be painful, costly and mean sacrifices for us all – but that’s just wrong," said Professor Doyne Farmer, who leads the team that conducted the study at the Institute for New Economic Thinking at the Oxford Martin School.

"Renewable costs have been trending down for decades. They are already cheaper than fossil fuels in many situations and, our research shows, they will become cheaper than fossil fuels across almost all applications in the years to come."

He added: "If we accelerate the transition, they will become cheaper faster. Completely replacing fossil fuels with clean energy by 2050 will save us trillions."

The research is released as new UK prime minister Liz Truss’s administration has announced a major push for fossil fuels – ending a ban on fracking and planning to "drill every last drop of oil" from the North Sea, according to her new energy secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg.

One scenario the Oxford team explored – titled the "fast transition" – shows "a realistic possible future" for a fossil-free energy system by around 2050.

In this scenario, the world would have 55 per cent more energy services than exist today and would be achieved by ramping up solar, wind, batteries, electric vehicles, and clean fuels such as green hydrogen made from renewable electricity.

"Past models, predicting high costs for transitioning to zero carbon energy, have deterred companies from investing, and made governments nervous about setting policies that will accelerate the energy transition and cut reliance on fossil fuels," said lead author of the study, Dr Rupert Way, a postdoctoral researcher at Oxford’s Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment.

"But clean energy costs have fallen sharply over the last decade, much faster than those models expected."

He added: “Our latest research shows scaling up key green technologies will continue to drive their costs down – and the faster we go, the more we will save.

"Accelerating the transition to renewable energy is now the best bet not just for the planet, but for energy costs too."

The research team analysed thousands of transition cost scenarios produced by major energy models and examined data on: 45 years of solar energy costs, 37 years of wind energy costs and 25 years for battery storage.

They said the research reveals that the real cost of solar energy dropped twice as fast as the most ambitious projections in these models, revealing that, over the past 20 years, previous models "badly overestimated the future costs" of renewable energy technology compared to the reality of cheap renewables we are already seeing today.

The research also suggests nuclear power will play a diminishing role in the future global energy mix due to the rising costs of building reactors.

"The costs of nuclear have consistently increased over the last five decades, making it highly unlikely to be cost competitive with plunging renewable and storage costs," the researchers said.

Meanwhile, the study showed the costs for storage technologies, such as batteries and hydrogen electrolysis, are also likely to fall dramatically.

Though the study was carried out before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the resultant surge in energy prices, such fluctuations were accounted for, by using over a century’s worth of fossil fuel price data, the team said.

But in light of the war, the team said: "The current energy crisis underscores the study’s findings and demonstrates the risks of continuing to rely on expensive, insecure, fossil fuels.

"The research confirms the response to the crisis should include accelerating the transition to low cost, clean energy as soon as possible, as this will bring benefits both for the economy and the planet."

Prof Farmer added: "The world is facing a simultaneous inflation crisis, national security crisis, and climate crisis, all caused by our dependence on high cost, insecure, polluting, fossil fuels with volatile prices. This study shows ambitious policies to accelerate dramatically the transition to a clean energy future as quickly as possible are, not only, urgently needed for climate reasons, but can save the world trillions in future energy costs, giving us a cleaner, cheaper, more energy secure future."

The research is published in the journal Joule.

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