Nearly 80% of the world’s energy needs could be met by renewable energies by 2050, according to a new report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

This action would lead to a greenhouse gas savings equivalent to 220 to 560 Gigatonnes of carbon dioxide (GtC02eq) in the next forty years.

But the switch to renewable energies relies on government’s taking strong action and enabling policies that enforce the adoption of clean energy and encourage the renewables industry, says the IPCC. The move to renewables would have significant environmental, economic and social effects, although it is not the only method government’s can take to reduce greenhouse gases.

A summary of the Special Report on Renewable Energy Sources and Climate Change Mitigation (SRREN) was launched this week in Abu Dhabi, with the full report being released on May 31. Over 1,000 pages long, the report was written by 120 IPCC researchers.

As the press release announces, scientists examined the environmental and social implications of over 160 existing scientific scenarios and their potential for using renewable energies. The report also explores how renewable energy can work in the current energy framework, including how renewables could be implemented via infrastructure such as the electricity grid.

The renewable energies covered in the report include bioenergy, direct solar, geothermal energy, hydropower, wind energy and ocean energy. It does not include nuclear energy, but it does include one controversial practice, notes Nathanial Gronewold in Scientific American:

“…the coalition of climate scientists includes traditional wood-burning in poor households’ cookstoves as an example of renewable energy, though many experts say this is one of the leading causes of deforestation in the world.”

But claims that 77% of the world’s energy could come from renewables is the most optismistic of the IPCC’s report four in-depth scenarios. In 2008 only 13% of the world’s energy came from renewable sources and the lowest of the projected scenarios — which account of socio-economic changes and energy efficiencies — predicts 15% come from renewables by 2050.

Matthew Wright, the executive director of Beyond Zero Emissions, tells Crikey the target of 80% is realistic, but could be even higher. “We’ve shown that Australia’s energy sector could be powered entirely by renewable sources in ten years at a reasonable price; the globe achieving 80% or even 100% is well within the realm of possibility,” said Wright.

Australia needs to set the example with renewable energies, says Wright. “Leading developed and developing economies are already heading towards the IPCC’s prediction. Germany now has a 100% renewable target by 2050. China has a target for renewables to provide 15% of ‘all energy’ needs by 2050. This equates to a 70% renewable target if it were to be met by the electricity sector alone.”

How governments turn the IPCC’s latest research into policy remains to be seen. As Ottmar Edenhofer, co-chair of the Working Group III (who produced the report) notes in a video about the report:

“The mandate of the IPCC is to explore all the relevant options for greenhouse gas emission reductions and  indeed renewables are an important part of that portfiolo. This report seeks to achieve, to provide policy relevant information to the decision makers to the policy makers without being policy prescriptive. The IPCC does not have the mandate to specific renewable energies policies. However the IPCC does have the mandate to inform the policy makers of the options they have technologically, politically and also socially.”

The entire report will not be released until May 31, so Rooted will follow it up once it’s out. In the meantime, today Crikey is running a webinar at 12.30pm with Dr Susannah Eliott, CEO of the Australian Science Media Centre and a member of the Climate Commission. Eliott will speak with Crikey editor Sophie Black and Canberra correspondent Bernard Keane. Register here to listen to the webinar, and, yes, you can ask questions.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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