In a few weeks, the world will be heading to Glasgow for the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP 26), following a one-year postponement caused by the eruption of Covid-19. A pandemic that — in the last eighteen months — has amplified the magnitude of socio-economic inequalities on a global scale, while highlighting the converging nature of the health and climate crises. Climate change has indeed devastating effects on people’s health all around the world, afflicting the most fragile among us. Against this backdrop, a swift transition of the energy sector is even more fundamental to ensure a sustainable development for all across societies and geographies; mitigating climate change risks and adapting to its effects.
But then again, what is the recipe to transform the energy sector to address such an unprecedented set of challenges? First and foremost, it includes the expansion of renewableenergy sources and the phase-out of fossil fuels accompanied by the electrification of end-use services. Today, renewables are not only the prominent source of fully decarbonized and non-pollutant energy supplies, but — as highlighted by IRENA — they have also become the cheapest electricity source, outpacing any new power capacity based on fossil fuels, including lignite. At a time when electricity has become essential to guarantee key social services such as health and education — as clearly evidenced by the Covid-19 crisis — the role of cheap and decarbonized renewables is expected to grow exponentially.
The centrality of renewables appears vital, among others, for countries and regions wherein electricity services are not yet available or pre-modern means are still used. Regrettably, the IEA’s recent data finds that 768 million people haveno access to electricity, 2.5 billion cannot rely on clean cooking technologies, and Covid-19 has contributed to reversing years of steady progress in this domain, as demonstrated by the 2% increase in the number of people without access to electricity services in 2021. According to the Agency, in Africa the pandemic has made essential electricity services economically unaffordable for 15 million people who had previously been connected: once again, this new set of data confirms the importance of accelerating the energy transition as an indispensable tool to fight inequality.
The transformation we should aim for has a common fil rouge built upon two fundamental enablers, without which none of the processes discussed above could actually be implemented at scale: the circular economy looking at the way we organize our systems, and smart grids on the technology side.
Indeed, as discussed by scholars and practitioners, the magnitude of the current challenges requires going beyond the linear economy, encouraging the development of a circular approach. This implies a new way of designing and deploying our socio-economic systems that offers the opportunity to address the climate threat while strengthening sustainable development pathways. Cities and urban conglomerates are the perfect laboratories to experiment the benefit of circularity. As they are growing basically everywhere on Earth, leveraging them to boost a circular approach will have a powerful impact on society at large and, among others, on the way energy is produced, managed, and consumed.
Circular infrastructure andbuildings — where efficient design and materials usages are coupled with the electrification of consumptions — will play an essential role in keeping the pressure on planetary boundaries under control while addressing energy poverty and exploring the benefit of new prosumers business models.
Circular mobility, centered around transport electrification — from public and private transportation to shared mobility — would improve air quality and public spaces management; thus directly having a positive impact on citizens’ health and wealth in urban areas currently expanding worldwide.
Finally, the industrialcompound will benefit from the process of profound transformation towards sustainable manufacturing induced by the circular economy approach. Energy efficiency gains based on the combination of process improvements (i.e., through recycling, reusing, and smart designing) and electrification will contribute to lowering large parts of the industrial sector’s emissions down to ‘hard-to-abate’ segments under current business-as-usual conditions.
The second fundamental element of the transformation — looking at the technological side of the prosperity puzzle — is the electricity grid: cutting-edge, sustainable solutions for the transformation of the electricity network infrastructure should be implemented along the entire value chain, from generators to prosumers, boosting the digitalization of power grids while increasing efficiency, reliability, and quality of services. Smart grids, capable of mastering renewable energy sources, encouraging customer engagement and stakeholder participation are at the heart of the energy sector transformation to meet the Paris Agreement’s objectives, and hopefully soon the Glasgow Agreement’s; ultimately providing greater value to the socio-economic systems they serve.
Although both circularity and smart grids are already making their way into how we organize and energize our societies, if we really wish to adapt to — and mitigate — the catastrophic effects of climate change, the pace of these transformations has to increase exponentially. Governments gathering in Glasgow for COP26 can make it happen faster by raising the bar of climate targets ambition and defining smoother financial and governance mechanisms to build back better for the benefit of all.