How electrification can stave off climate change

1907 News List

The impact of carbon dioxide on climate change has been seen as a possibility since the late 19th century. In 1938, Guy Callendar presented evidence that temperature and CO2 had both been rising for the past fifty years, but those early studies on climate change wouldn’t be taken seriously until the mid-to-late 1980s. 

What is climate change ?

Since the 1990s, the notion of climate change has been slowly making its way into society’s preoccupations. By 2010, it’s taken a centre stage position in global concerns. A 2017 survey led by the Pew Research Center (Washington based think tank) even stated that, out of 38 countries polled, climate change was considered the second-biggest threat to national security (Globally, People Point to ISIS and Climate Change as Leading Security Threats, Pew Research Center, 2017).

In 2020, the advent of coronavirus revealed the shortcomings of a global consumerist society and contributed to raise awareness on the impact of human activities to our planet. People globally have been asking for a more environmentally friendly lifestyle and no economic sector has been spared: agriculture, transportation, electricity, all have been tasked to find ecological alternatives.

Two years on, Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and its manipulation of gas supplies, has determined the EU to further accelerate its energy transition. Against the backdrop of imminent gas supply curtailments, the group of 27 is working towards speeding up the deployment of renewable capacities. Climate action and energy security became two sides of the same coin.

But before talking about alternatives and, in particular the sustainable electricity production methods advocated by Eurelectric, let’s recall what is climate change.

Climate change definition

There are two widely accepted definitions of climate change, the first one presented by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the second by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

In the "Fact sheet: Climate change science - the status of climate change science today" published by the UNFCCC in 2011, climate change was defined as "a change in the state of the climate that can be identified (e.g., using statistical tests) by changes in the mean and/or the variability of its properties, and that persists for an extended period, typically decades or longer. It refers to changes in climate over time, whether due to natural variability or as a result of human activity."

The IPCC definition slightly defers, however, as they consider that "climate change refers to a change of climate that is attributed directly or indirectly to human activity, that alters the composition of the global atmosphere and that is in addition to natural climate variability observed over comparable time periods.’’

While the difference between both definitions might seem subtle, it is highly important, as it reflects the recognition of the impact of human activities on the atmosphere.

Another important point to address is the difference between climate change and global warming, a term that is often used indistinctly although it has a more restrictive meaning.

The difference between climate change and global warming

In 1975, the geochemist Wallace Broecker used the two different terms in his article "Climatic Change: Are We on the Brink of a Pronounced Global Warming?". He referred to global warming as surface temperature change due to rising levels of greenhouse emissions. Climate change implies more changes induced by the increase of carbon dioxide on Earth’s climate. These include temperature change but they also take into account the changes to precipitation patterns and rising sea or ocean levels.

A few examples of climate change

While the Earth has historically known periods of climate change, there is no denying that recent human activity has accelerated those transformations drastically. Scientists have been measuring the impact of temperature rise and were able to observe that whilst temperature in different regions haven’t been rising at the same rate — it has been much worse over land and in the Arctic — air and surface temperatures have risen globally since the 1880. And they continue to do so, impacting the entire planet. A recent report by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) has warned that by mid-century, climate change will become the main driver of biodiversity loss. Unless nature is restored this will further accelerate climate change.

So far, climate reports have shown terrifying climate changes linked to greenhouse gases emissions :

  •  Extreme weather events becoming more frequent : increase in draft in some regions and more frequent fires or extreme heat combined with more frequent and intense heavy rainfall
  • Ocean warming and acidifying, leading to less oxygen in the water and a decrease in water quality for the existing ecosystems
  • The decrease of Arctic sea ice, which is now at its lowest level in 1 000 years and registering a 40% decrease since 1979. The Greenland ice sheet, for instance, has rapidly declined over the past 20 years due to surface melting and iceberg calving. An assessment of satellite data, conducted by NASA indicates that between 2002 and 2020, Greenland lost an average of 279 billion metric tons of ice per year, adding to global sea level rise. 
  • A strong warming trend in Antarctica is projected to continue in the 21st century at a rate greater than the global average. The working group 1 of the IPCC warned that at sustained warming levels between 2°C and 3°C, the South Pole, in particular the
    West Antarctic Ice Sheet, will be lost almost completely
    and irreversibly over multiple millennia, with the probability of complete loss increasing the higher surface temperatures grow.
  • Glaciers retreat, now at their smallest surface in at least 2 000 years

Ice melt has been one of the reasons behind the rise in sea level - and at a rate not seen in at least 3 000 years (other reason being the thermal expansion of water). In the last 23 years, sea level has risen an alarming 8 cm according to the United States Space Agency and the United Nation expects a rise between 0,3 and 1 meter by the end of the century. It could even reach 2 m if the Paris Climate Agreement is not respected. The rise in sea level has foreseeable consequences as it could lead to the flood of coastal areas.

Causes of climate change

For the first time, the IPCC was able to prove in 2021 the direct link between human activities and climate change. To do so, the working group has studied over 14 000 reports made by scientists all over the world. The 3949-page long ARW6 report was approved by governments and is considered the most comprehensive report on climate change we have today.

The report showed that carbon emissions - most often than not caused by burning fossil fuels - are directly linked to climate change and responsible for a 1.1 °C increase in temperature across the globe. Given that CO2 concentration is the highest level in 2 million years, the global temperature is expected to keep rising to reach or exceed 1.5 °C of warming. 

In Europe today, around 70% of emissions come from energy use in all economic sectors. This calls for an urgent transition to sustainable energy sources. Eurelectric believes that electrification, supported by massive amounts of clean and renewable energies, is the most cost-effective solution for Europe’s decarbonisation.

Eurelectric’s vision is to phase out fossil fuels from electricity production. Our initial assessment showed that by 2045, the electricity generation mix would be produced by clean sources of energy generation such as renewables and nuclear. The European Commission's Fit for 55% ambitions improved the prospects: the power sector can be carbon-neutral 5 to 10 years earlier than expected, meaning that we could be carbon free by 2035-2040. This assessment is further detailed in Eurelectric's Power Barometer 2021.


The effects of climate change

As you might have seen in our webinar on ‘Building Power System Resilience in Times of Extreme Weather', climate change has a tremendous effect on weather patterns, which impact the electricity generation and supply. Both cold spells and extreme heat might cause high energy demand and surcharge the networks. Windstorms might lead to the curtailment of the wind power plants or break the cables that bring electricity to consumers. To mitigate these negative effects, companies are taking measures to improve the resilience of their networks and generation capacities. Yet, limiting global warming to 1.5 °C is key to avert the negative effect of climate change. To do so, rapid, large-scale and immediate steps must be taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

Studies have shown that reducing global warming is essential to maintain meteorological conditions globally. To give a few examples, each additional degree Celsius intensifies extreme weather events, provoking severe draughts in some regions, but also rainfalls in others, where they lead to an increase in precipitations and lead to severe flooding. This will also impact sea and ocean levels, which will rise and cause coastal erosion. Severe storms, such as Storm Francis in the United Kingdom, will become more frequent over the globe.

Increased heats waves, longer warm seasons and shorter cold seasons are also to be expected with the predicted 1.5 °C global warming. However, if we were to exceed that temperature rise limit, and hit the 2 °C mark, the impact on land, agriculture and health caused by heat extremes would often reach critical thresholds. On one side, this will affect food production, reducing the crop yield. On the other,  this could increase the need for cooling systems, which would ramp up the energy demand.

In fact, 2021 has seen many temperature records being beaten. In Europe, the highest temperature ever recorded was reported in Syracuse (Sicily) on the 11th of August, when the air temperature rose to 48.8 °C, 0.8 °C than the previous record. In Tunisia on the same day, the thermometer hit the 49 °C threshold, more than two degrees higher than the previous 1982 record of 46.8 °C.

Almost certainly a result of global warming, these extreme temperatures have led to many destructive fires. Italy was forced to declare a state of emergency after the Sicilian fires that followed a strong heat wave. A few weeks later, it was France and Spain turn to face intense flames when the Gulf of Saint-Tropez and the province of Avila caught fire. 

The first politician to directly link those fires to climate change was Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis  (Greece). He stated on the 5th of August 2021, following the devastating fires on the Evia Islands when thousands had to be evacuated, that the fires were ‘’the reality of climate change’’. A week later, when his country saw over 100 000 hectares reduced to cinders, he declared “The climate crisis is here and it shows us that everything needs to change [...] from the orientation of the economy, to the energy policy.” 

Mitigation & Adaptation to climate change

Today, there’s sadly no possible way to stop climate change: all we can do is slow it down and avoid its worst consequences. One method will be to proceed with decarbonisation through electrification. In fact, scientists have shown that to limit human-induced global warming to specific levels, we must limit the cumulative CO2 emissions until reaching the net-zero CO2 emissions. That has to go hand in hand with solutions to reduce other greenhouse gases, such as methane, as the IPCC highlighted.

One of the first elements is that electricity must be decarbonised. Eurelectric’s members have committed to increase their efforts towards having a carbon-neutral electricity mix and pledged to do so years before mid-century, all the while maintaining reliable and competitively priced electricity through an integrated European energy market. 

This has value in many other sectors than electricity itself. It will contribute to decarbonise other sectors, such as transport or space heating, sectors that cannot decarbonise on their own to achieve the emissions goals set during the Paris Agreement. In fact, today only about 23% of energy consumption in the industry, building and transport sectors is electrified - by 2050, direct electrification will need to reach 60% of final energy consumption if we are to have a climate neutral economy.

To help the economic actors reach their goals, the Commission adopted a new EU Adaptation Strategy (24/02/2021) as part of the European Green Deal. It aims to accelerate and increase the European Union’s effort to protect nature, people and livelihoods against the impacts of climate change through 3 significant measures : 

  • Ensuring that all of EU’s policies and actions contribute to increase Europe’s resilience against the impacts of climate change
  • Supporting local, regional and national authorities and partners in the private sectors in their adaptation to climate change
  • Scaling up international finance and supporting stronger global engagements and exchanges on adaptation internationally

In parallel, measures have also been taken to mitigate climate change, as preventing and reducing the emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere while walking towards our long term goal will contribute to lower the impact of climate change. To do so, the European Environment Agency gathers data on European countries’ progress and measures what has been done to reach those goals. 

How renewables contribute to mitigation

81% of the EU's ecosystems are already in poor or bad condition, as a result of intensive agriculture, urbanisation, air and land pollution, as well as unsustainable practices. While human activity has led to this deterioration so far, climate change is expected to become the leading driver of biodiversity loss by mid-century.

There is a vicious circle. As ecosystems degrade, their ability to contribute to climate change mitigation diminishes. For instance, once the land dries its ability to support plant growth decreases. In turn, without plants, the natural carbon sequestration - or removal of carbon emissions - diminishes too. Similarly, ocean warming and acidification damages water ecosystems. To fight against this biodiversity loss, the EU has put in place a strategy that sets binding nature restoration targets: restoring 25 000 km of river flows, 30% of land and 30% of seas.

Integrated renewable energy projects can restore degraded ecosystems and remove CO2 emissions as shown in Eurelectric's Power Plant report. For instance, solar shading reduces evapotranspiration and keeps moisture in the ground longer, thereby reducing soil erosion, increasing its ability to capture carbon from the atmosphere and helping revegetate arid areas or desertified land. Moreover, by placing agri-photovoltaics above crops, we can protect them from hale and heat, thus leading to both sustainable food and energy production. Alternatively, floating solar systems can be deployed on the surface of dams or other water bodies, thus freeing up land for agriculture.

Similarly, by stopping the extraction of peat from the earth and using rewetted land for wind farms can significantly reduce methane emissions and improve biodiversity.

Developing such projects is essential for a sustainable future.

Decarbonisation as a method to reduce climate change 

A recommended strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is to proceed with the full decarbonisation of the power sector while also increasing efforts to electrify most economic sectors - including building, industry and transport. 

In fact, electrification has three ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions :

  1. It reduces the use of fossil fossils fuels in end-use sectors such as transport, heating and cooling and industrial applications.
  2. The higher efficiency of electric solutions compared to conventional technologies allows it to reduce the total energy demand. This is thanks to greater performance coefficient of heat pumps, which is 4 to 5 times higher than conventional gas boilers, and electric motors which help electric vehicles consume 75% less than internal-combustion vehicles while travelling the same distance
  3. Electric production of fuels such as clean hydrogen and power-to-X reduces emissions in sectors where direct electrification is not yet possible

Encouraging numbers have been measured as the share of renewables in the generation mix gained almost 10% in one year, while the coal replacement accelerated. A set of key industry indicators shown by Eurelectric’s Power Barometer 2021 reflect the progress made in the power sector. In 2010, renewables accounted for 20% of the generation mix in Europe while in 2020, ⅔ of the electricity generated was carbon-free, with renewables covering 39% of the mix. In 2020, fossil fuel generation also dropped to 37% of the mix. 


Eurelectric Decarbonisation Pathways study

Eurelectric's study Decarbonisation Pathways models the ways towards reaching a carbon neutral European power sector well ahead of the 2050 and how a strong electrification of key economic sectors can deliver on the Paris Agreements. Aside from supportive regulatory frameworks, this will require investments in renewables and power grids. The good news is that, instead of banking on developing technologies, it relies on renewable energies, which have become increasingly reliable and competitive. The assessment presented in the Power Barometer 2022 shows that annual grid investment this decade should be around €37bn, while €79 bn per year are requested on the generation side between now and mid-century.

It also shows that to achieve the carbon neutrality at least 60% of the European Union’s economy will have to be electrified. 

Paris Climate Agreement 

In the 2015 Paris Agreement, measures to limit the global temperature rise to well below 2 °C by 2100 were taken and agreed by 195 UN Member States. Eurelectric strongly welcomed those decisions as it reflected the international community’s will to fight climate change and transition to a low carbon world. 

To align with this major target, the EU launched the Green Deal, setting the climate neutrality ambition and the Fit for 55 framework which paves the way to a 55% emissions reduction below 1990 level by 2030, as an intermediary step, before achieving a net-zero emission economy by 2050.

The European Commission measures to achieve the Paris Climate Agreement goals

The Green Deal initiative taken by the EU, and the subsequent "Fit for 55" Package offer a number of approaches for a successful energy transition. 37% of the €750 billion NextGenerationEU recovery fund will go towards the Green Deal objectives, facilitating our capacity to meet the 2030 EU Climate target. Specifically, it will contribute to the deployment of wind and solar energy capacities needed for decarbonisation.

This important budget will also have other advantages, as the electrification of the economy and increased use of clean and renewable sources are expected to create higher employment in those sectors.  

Finally, the European Commission set up measures to support EU member states efforts to move toward a carbon free continent. To do so, they’ve planned mechanisms to ensure that companies importing into the EU will also have to pay a carbon price. 

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