Climate disruption jumped to the fore of the global political agenda in 2014 and a series of developments cemented both renewable energy and carbon pricing as lead solutions to the crisis.
Washington and Beijing struck a landmark deal to limit emissions, noted Canadian conservatives stepped forward to support emissions pricing, and the divestment movement moved from student union buildings to boardrooms, with many, from Catholic bishops to Rockefeller oil-fortune heirs, moving their money out of fossil fuels.
Meanwhile, the former governor of the Bank of Canada raised a red flag about the “carbon bubble,” Canada’s premiers agreed to develop a Canadian energy strategy that would address climate change, and Elon Musk broke ground on his Gigafactory that will slash the costs of electric vehicle batteries and, by extension, the cars themselves.
Here are some of the more important developments that didn’t receive enough attention in 2014:
1. Big utilities looking over their shoulders at solar
Even five years ago, solar panels were still considered a boutique electricity source. That’s changed faster than anyone expected as China went all-in on its massive clean-energy transition push and began churning out panels like hamburger patties. As a result, global equipment costs plunged. The average per-watt spot price for solar panels dropped 83 per cent in the past five years.
That new affordability, combined with enabling policy, is spurring an unprecedented surge in installations, particularly in Europe and parts of the United States. According to the U.S. Solar Industries Association, in the first three quarters of 2014, solar delivered 36 per cent of America’s new power needs, up from 9.6 per cent just two years previous. For the first time, home and business owners have a viable and cost-competitive alternative to fossil-fuel power utilities.
Though solar’s over-all market share remains small, as Blockbuster Video once warily eyed Netflix, big centralized fossil-power utilities are taking note of the upstart. Europe’s biggest private power utility recently spun off its fossil assets to focus on renewables, smarter grids, and efficiency.
2. Wind-turbine sickness debunked
New and robust evidence dismantled enduring myths that wind farms make people sick and/or devalue nearby properties. As the new research affirms, they do neither.
Health Canada released in November a $2.1-million study of adults living close to wind farms in Ontario and Prince Edward Island. The agency found the installations have absolutely no impact on human health. The study mirrors the conclusions of 21 similar evidence reviews from around the world over recent years. (If anything, I’d argue windmills improve human health by replacing polluting gas and coal-fired power plants with emissions-free technology.)
Meanwhile University of Guelph researchers in early December released their study of more than 7,000 home and farm sales in rural Ontario, where between 2005 and 2008 power developers erected 133 turbines. The authors concluded with possible isolated exceptions, the windmills did not ding the value of surrounding properties.
3. The developing world focus on encouraging renewables
As wind, sun, and other renewable technologies become cheaper, and emerging markets introduce policies to help level the playing field with heavily subsidized fossil fuels, the assumption that only coal and oil will lift developing nations out of poverty is unravelling.
According to research network REN21, at the beginning of 2014, 95 developing nations had policies in place to encourage renewable energy development, a six-fold increase from 2005 when there were just 15. Since investment dollars follow policy, we’re experiencing a wind and solar boom in these nations. Meanwhile Kenya opened a massive geothermal power station.
Further, Bloomberg New Energy Finance said the ability of 55 emerging markets in Africa, Asia and Latin America and the Caribbean to produce clean energy grew at a faster pace this past year than it did in developed countries. Clean energy capacity in those regions more than doubled in the past five years and now totals 142 GW, more than the current power-output capability of France.
4. Big business backing carbon pricing
This was the year some of the world’s largest financial institutions — represented by fund managers and CEOs — climbed off the fence and supported carbon pricing. The watershed moment came in September, before the landmark Climate Summit in New York, when 347 investors overseeing more than $24 trillion US in assets pledged to support “stable, reliable and economically meaningful carbon pricing,” strengthen regulations for renewable-energy deployment, and more.
A few days later, more than 1,000 institutional investors, financial institutions, and companies — including leading oil companies and airlines — jumped aboard, and endorsed calls for putting a strong price on carbon pollution and boosting clean-energy investment.
5. Rapid global shift to clean energy both essential and affordable
Not only must renewable energy dominate global energy supplies by the middle of this century to avoid the worst effects of climate disruption, but a rapid and wholesale shift away from fossil fuels would not damage the global economy. Those are the two take-aways of a report released in April by the United Nations intergovernmental panel on climate change.
The report — produced by 1,250 international experts and approved by 194 governments — found diverting hundreds of billions of dollars from fossil fuels into renewable energy and cutting energy waste would shave just six one hundredths of a per cent off expected annual economic growth rates.
While pipelines have been grabbing headlines, clean energy has been grabbing growth. As concern over climate impacts mounts, the pressure on business and government leaders will continue to build. World leaders will focus in 2015 on achieving a global climate agreement. It’s clear clean energy will be a central solution, helping avoid the worst impacts of climate change while creating new opportunities for economic prosperity.
We hope Canada’s political leaders make a new year’s resolution to confront the challenge, and seize the opportunity.
This op-ed originally appeared in the Vancouver Sun.