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Emissions set to exceed tipping point

The shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy has been too slow to keep global temperature increases within the threshold needed to avert serious disaster.

This is one of the main findings of the 12th PricewaterhouseCoopers Annual Power and Utilities Survey, which is based on the views of the top management of 72 power and utility companies around the world.

The global aim is to decrease greenhouse gas emissions, which are largely the result of burning fossil fuels, quickly enough so that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere peaks at 450 parts per million. This would limit the average global temperature increase to 2°C, a level at which changes could be managed.

But with electricity demand projected to increase from 17200 terawatt-hours in 2009 to 31 700TWh in 2035, this is unlikely. Fossil fuels currently generate 66% of this electricity and those surveyed said they were aiming to reduce it to 57% by 2030. Renewables and gas would make up the rest.

Serious consequences
Given these responses, the survey concludes that the forecast fuel-mix scenario will result in “a level of emissions consistent with long-term average temperature increases of more than 3.5°C”.

According to the International Energy Agency, this will have serious consequences: droughts, floods, sea levels rising by more than 2m, changes in rainfall patterns and heat waves. These would severely affect food production and increase the prevalence of human diseases and mortality rates.

Of those interviewed, 44% said that raising finance for power generation was difficult, which three-quarters of them said was the greatest barrier to renewables getting a bigger share of the market. But 80% thought that onshore wind energy, biomass and solar energy would be so competitively priced by 2030 that they would not need subsidies.

Africa and Asia are leading the race in terms of investment and face far fewer blackouts, but the fear in the mature markets of North America and Europe is that recessions and lower levels of investment will lead to a reversal of their fortunes.

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Sipho Kings
Sipho Kings is the acting editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian

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