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Are we spending enough on green energy?

Wind turbine and solar panel

The 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference was one that has been forgotten for some. Then-UK prime minister David Cameron made a pledge to put more of a focus on green energy. In his own words:

“Our grandchildren would rightly ask us: what was so difficult?

You had this technology, you knew it worked, you knew that if you gave it to poor and vulnerable countries they could protect themselves against climate change – why on earth didn’t you do it?

What I’m saying is that instead of making excuses tomorrow to our children and grandchildren, we should be taking action against climate change today.

What we are looking for is not difficult, it is doable and therefore we should come together and do it.”

This was part of a promise to double green energy research and development by 2020, which we are currently on course to completely miss the mark on. As a percentage of GDP, the amount we spend on green energy research and development has not doubled, staying at around 0.02 per cent since that the day that speech took place, according to data from the International Energy Agency (IEA).

That being said, a lot of countries aren’t doing a lot either. More data from the IEA shows the most developed countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) are spending just 0.03 per cent of their GDP on low-carbon energy research and development, which again, hasn’t changed in 4 years.

Climate policy is a subject that is constantly brought up by politicians, and one that has its fair share of promises that don’t get followed up on.

The Climate Action Tracker, a project run by a group of three organisations in the climate research field, has been looking for developments from the countries that took part in the meeting. Their report is damning. You can view where your country stands here. For a point of reference, countries categorised as critically insufficient failed to even promise to reduce emissions. For those who would like it summarised, there are two countries that are compatible with the Paris agreement: Morocco and the Gambia. All of the EU is in the insufficient box, and the USA is a notable inclusion in the critically insufficient category- one of five countries that have been placed there.

Green energy is still in its infancy in the grand scheme of things, and won’t be able to completely replace fossil fuels yet, so vowing to cut emissions completely would do more harm than good. This is, however, why research and development investment is essential. We have to get to the point where renewable energy is the majority, then hopefully the entirety.

Right now, solar and wind energy together only add up to around 1% of the world’s energy. The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates by 2040, energy demand is said to rise by over 25%, so the development of renewable energy is getting more and more important. Dr Fatih Birol, the IEA’s Executive Director, has explained:

“Our analysis shows that over 70% of global energy investments will be government-driven and as such the message is clear – the world’s energy destiny lies with government decisions. Crafting the right policies and proper incentives will be critical to meeting our common goals of securing energy supplies, reducing carbon emissions, improving air quality in urban centres, and expanding basic access to energy in Africa and elsewhere.”

Despite renewables being the future, there are two major drawbacks that can be a stumbling block for the move away from fossil fuels:

Space

It’s no secret green energy farms take up space. Renewable energy sources are said to take up to 1000 times more space than fossil fuels.

Weather

Green energy is also unreliable because the weather is constantly changing. Solar energy struggles through the winter when nights are long and overcast is frequent. Wind energy is another problematic area, as low amounts of wind could drastically reduce the amount of energy we generate.

A common fact used by green energy supporters is that wind and solar both cost less than fossil fuels, but this is conditional and not entirely true. On a day with a lot of wind or sun, it is cheaper, but this is where its unreliability damages its potential. On days with no wind or sun, renewable energy is massively expensive. This is why fossil fuels may always be needed as a back-up. The world needs power 24/7, so there isn’t any room for an overcast day.

Battery technology is also nowhere near being used as a back-up for solar or wind energy, with the US’s total battery storage only being enough to power the country for 14 seconds.

All of this points to the need for research and development. With the major drawbacks of renewable energy, and the weaknesses of our plan B, the most logical step would be to strive to improve.

The IEA has created a recent report detailing the value of different forms of energy, accounting for the negatives. This report explains that coal is cheaper than all forms of renewable energy, and will be until at least 2040. This is probably the biggest reason coal is still so popular.

Putting more money into green energy research and development means we can start to fix the issues we’ve run into, and make those moves towards the completely renewable economy we need. Solar and wind are both in need of improvements, and batteries are the same. It would definitely be a good idea to develop more efficient forms of power (water is still a method that needs a lot more work), than to build the current and flawed ones en masse.

That promise David Cameron made all those years ago should still be honoured. It was a bold statement, but the though process behind it is one that’s increasing in relevancy every year. There is a lot more we can do- “what we are looking for is not difficult, it is doable and therefore we should come together and do it.”

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