The answer to alarming climate science: 100% renewable energy

Danish owners of wind turbines in front of a light projection showing the Danish roadmap to 100 % renewable energy. Renewable energy is a key solution to climate change, says the IPCC, currently meeting in Copenhagen, Denmark  © Greenpeace / Christian Aslund

Back in the 1970s dedicated and resourceful Danes made a choice to take control of their energy, turning their backs on nuclear and embracing a renewable energy by building their own wind turbines. It started a true revolution. Now the country is on its way to power all it’s heat and power with 100% renewable energy in just 20 years from now – and transport too by 2050.

This week, the city of Copenhagen, Denmark’s capital, plays host to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) as it finalises its 5th Assessment Report, AR5. Earlier in the year the solutions part of the report already showed that renewable energies are bigger and cheaper than ever and ready to start replacing fossil fuels.

And they are more needed than ever. As the IPCC outlined: “a fundamental transformation of the energy system” is needed, including a “long – term phase – out of unabated fossil fuel conversion technologies”.

Sounds like we need a plan!

We contacted some energy experts around the world to hear their thoughts about Denmark’s commitment to 100% renewable energy; on 100% renewables as a solution for others too, and on the choices outlined by the IPCC report in general. The responses were truly encouraging.

Paul Gipe, Renewable energy industry analyst and Principal at wind-works.org, US sums it up:

“Making the transition to 100% renewable energy is a political – not technical – decision. The technologies and the knowledge necessary exist today. The choice is simple: Do we make the transition or not? Denmark has made that decision.”

Denmark’s example inspires energy experts

Denmark’s 100% renewable goal has clearly inspired world’s energy experts.

“I full heartedly welcome Denmark’s bold and inspiring commitment for their 100% energy supply – electricity, heating, industry and transport – is to be covered by renewable energy by 2050″, says Dipal Barua from Bangladesh, a Chairman of Bright Green Energy Foundation and advisor to the Green Climate Fund.

The commitment is considered as transformational and unique.

“As the first OECD country, the Nordic country goes beyond the power sector and teaches us that a holistic and integrated approach is the cheapest, fastest and most sustainable strategy”, said Harry Lehmann, General Director of the Federal Environmental Agency, Germany.

Denmark’s climate targets also include a phase out of coal by 2030, followed by a complete phase-out of fossil fuels by 2050; a 40% reduction on domestic greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 by 2020; and an electricity mix made up 50% from wind by 2020. 

“Denmark remains the only major national government in the world to have acknowledged the increasingly unavoidable fact that others continue to ignore: namely, that it will be impossible to ensure a stable climate for future generations without phasing out the use of coal in the electricity sector”, says Toby D. Couture, a Canadian Founder and Director of E3 Analytics.

Power to the people

Today Denmark is a world leader in wind power – both in terms of use and manufacturing, but it all started from regular people wanting to make a difference. Despite the rise of larger turbines and increasing industrialisation, three-quarters of Denmark’s wind turbines are still owned by ordinary citizens.

“Denmark is the show-case of energy transition not only towards 100% renewables, but also in the transition from large, centralised monopoly to small distributed community power, in other words, they are democratising energy for the people”, commends Tetsunari Iida, Executive Director & Founder of the Institution for Sustainable Energy Policies (ISEP).

Spreading the Danish revolution globally

Denmark may still be the leader but experts believe that 100% renewables can be made a reality across the world:

“If 100% renewables is possible in Denmark, why not in sunny South Africa?”, asks Professor Harald Winkler, Director of the Energy Research Centre, University of Cape Town, South Africa.

“As AR5 makes clear, many renewable energy technologies have substantially advanced in terms of performance and cost. For South Africa, concentrating solar power with storage is a key technology”, he continues.

“By attesting its comprehensive leadership in harnessing wind-electricity within broader energy systems, Denmark’s example will likely inspire other Governments. This includes that of my home country, Morocco, who could meet similar objectives,” says Khalid Benhamou, Managing Director from Sahara Wind in Morocco.

Professor S.C. Bhattacharya (India) from the World Bioenergy Association believes 100% can work for all countries:

“A global move towards 100%RE is vital for addressing the twin problems of depleting conventional fossil fuel reserves and climate change as well as associated problems such as urban air pollution. Few will disagree that 100%RE is feasible and likely for practically all countries by 2100. With enough political will and concerted efforts, this can be achieved as early as 2050.”

Christine Lins, Executive Director of REN21, Germany, agrees, especially on power sector:

“Progress during the last decade has shown tremendous advancements of renewable energy use in the electricity sector. Many scenarios outline possible pathways towards 100% electricity from renewables by mid-century.”

No compromising of development and well-being

David de Jager, Managing Consultant on Ecofys and an operating agent for the IEA-RETD, has studied the 100% renewable future in detail.

“There is no doubt that a fully sustainable and largely renewable global energy system is technically and economically possible by 2050. Ecofys did the calculations for The Energy Report (TER) with the following clear message: by utilising today’s technologies alone, 95% of all energy can be renewable by 2050, comfortable lifestyles can be developed and sustained, and long-term benefits can outweigh short-term costs.”

Other experts, too, agreed that development and well-being will not be compromised.

“Such a conversion [to 100% renewables] will eliminate most all air pollution and global warming, create jobs, and provide energy stability and energy price stability. It will benefit our children and grandchildren and many generations beyond”, said Professor Mark Z. Jacobson of Stanford University

“Fossil fuel consumption reduction without compromising development and human well-being IS possible if a strong energy policy is promoted towards sustainable production and consumption of energy, which implies a strong promotion of energy efficiency and renewable energy sources”, says Professor Ana María Cetto, from the Institute of Physics, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.

Alarming science calls for urgent action

The importance of taking ambitious action will be further emphasised this week, as the IPCC will outline the urgent need to head for zero carbon emissions.

“We know the very simple fact, that we have to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the energy system to zero within two to four decades. Our global civilization is at highest risk in case we fail. The energy system needs to be transformed under the constraints of sustainability and least total societal cost. The only solution is a 100% renewable energy system”, sums professor Christian Breyer of the University of Lappeenranta, Finland.

Fortunately, the transition has already started, big time, and Denmark is not the only example of the renewable energy technologies have proven scale. Scotland has a target to supply 100% of the country’s electricity demand from renewable sources by 2020, while similar aims are taking root in Cape Verde, Africa as well as Latin America where Costa Rica is one of the leading nations.

Meanwhile big cities around the world have set a 100% renewables target including the German cities Frankfurt and Munich, Sydney in Australia and San Francisco in the US.

Professor Peter Lund explains why this idea is taking root:

“Climate change is a result of an unsustainable economy. Denmark has shown that through investing in renewable energy and energy efficiency, countries can simultaneously improve their economy, create new jobs, and mitigate the climate change,” he says.

“Energy efficiency and renewable energies are the largest energy sources that we have, and together they are often the least-cost clean energy option as well. The technology and economy aspects clearly speak for a renewable energy turnabout. But these words sound empty unless the politicians all round the world have the courage and vision to decide in favour of a renewable energy future, in the same way as Denmark did. Carpe diem decision-makers.”

The 100% RE campaign urges political and business leaders to act on science, and to start phasing in a 100% renewable energy future today, with sustainable energy access for all as by early as possible, but no later than 2050. As the expert statements from around the world underline, this future is fully within our reach, if we decide so.

For full answers from the experts cited, see here.

Anna Leidreiter is the Policy Officer Climate and Energy for the World Future Council and Kaisa Kosonen is a Climate Policy Advisor with Greenpeace Nordic.

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Learning the tragic lesson of Fukushima: No nuclear restart at Sendai

Bags of contaminated soil, mud and grass at a playground of an elementary school in Iitate village. 10/27/2014 © Noriko Hayashi / Greenpeace

In March 2011, Japan suffered the worst nuclear catastrophe in a generation, with triple reactor core meltdowns and exploded containment buildings at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

The catastrophe was a stern warning about the perils of depending on nuclear power.

Legislation to promote renewable energy has meant the number of solar power installations has rocketed. With reactors going offline and being unable to restart due in large part to public opposition, Japanese citizens have enjoyed over a year in which no nuclear power plant has operated.

This progress could be reversed if the Abe administration gets its way and begins restarting reactors. The first two to be promoted for restart are at the Sendai nuclear plant in the Kagoshima prefecture, on Japan’s southern island of Kyushu. These proposed restarts are not a done deal, as some news reports have suggested. Greenpeace wants Governor Ito and his officials in Kagoshima to respect the opinion of the majority of the prefecture’s residents – and the Japanese public at large – and step in to keep Sendai closed.

It’s a simple question of public safety: no reactors should be restarted. And especially not the two at Sendai which are situated in a coastal seismic zone next to a super volcano.

I was a member of the team of Greenpeace radiation experts that went to the Fukushima disaster zone 10 days after the catastrophe to investigate and expose the extent of radioactive contamination.

This week, we returned to Fukushima prefecture to continue to document the continuing nuclear crisis. Seeing the tragic reality of the people living there made us think about the people living in the shadow of the Sendai reactors.

A nuclear disaster is an unsolvable problem and ordinary people end up paying when they lose their livelihoods and communities.

Decontamination efforts at Fukushima, which began in 2012, have proved massively expensive and hugely intensive. Thousands of workers have invested tens of thousands of hours removing soil and cleaning houses, unfortunately with very limited success.

One result of the decontamination effort is clearly visible. Immense quantities of radioactive waste have been generated, and it keeps on multiplying. Along the roads, piles of large black bags. each holding around a cubic metre of radioactive waste, await transport to larger temporary storage sites.

We visited one of these sites in Kawauchi. In the breathtakingly beautiful setting of forests and mountains our first sight was of an immense area filled with bag upon bag of radioactive waste. At just this one site no less than 200,000 of these cubic-metre bags lie covered by green tarpaulins.

Around Fukushima there are thousands of similar nuclear waste storage sites.

The supposed ‘decontamination’ has succeeded only in relocating the radioactive contamination. It’s a huge problem without any real, safe solution.

Even these large-scale efforts are proving inadequate in lowering radiation exposure levels to government targets. As evacuation orders are lifted, people are moving back into areas that are still dangerously contaminated. Many residents are effectively being forced to return home, because within a year of the order to return they risk losing their already meagre compensation. Those living in contaminated areas face a terrible dilemma.

This week we again visited Myiakoji, the first village to have its evacuation order lifted. We were there a year ago when former residents were beginning to come to terms with the impact of the lifting of the evacuation order. 

Last year our monitoring work found radiation levels were still higher than the government target despite a decontamination effort that had involved more than a thousand workers whose focus was on 200 homes.

A member of the Greenpeace radiation monitoring team measures the level of radiation in front of Miyoko Watanabe's original house in the Miyakoji district of Tamura City. 10/25/2014 © Noriko Hayashi / Greenpeace

Little in Myiakoji has changed. Radiation levels are similar to those in 2013. Of 5,600 measurements we took along the road, 34% were above the government’s radiation target. Away from the roads, where no decontamination had been undertaken, we discovered considerably higher radiation levels.

In Kawauchi, another area where the evacuation order was lifted only a few weeks ago, 59% of our radiation measurements were over the target level and, again, we measured higher levels away from the roads.

Many of those who can afford to are staying away. Like Mrs. Watanabe who will never return to her beautiful home and mountain orchard that have been heavily contaminated by the Fukushima disaster. They are lost to her forever. She would rather live in relative safety in a tiny flat, and bear the heavy cost of building a new house elsewhere, than put her health at risk by returning to her mountain home and the land that she once so cherished. 

It’s the same story in Fukushima City, 60 kilometres from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. Initial measurements we took in a parking lot suggested it had been well-decontaminated. Compared to last year this was the first real progress of decontamination that we had observed.

But six metres from our first measurement point radiation levels jumped to way above the government target. There we found the ground was contaminated with approximately twelve and a half times more radioactive caesium than the level which would lead the Japanese government to classify it as radioactive waste. Officially, the levels of radioactivity in this parking lot would demand wearing radiation protection and approval by authorities to handle it.

As with everywhere else undergoing decontamination operations, radioactive waste is piled up throughout Fukushima City. On the outskirts, much of it has been shovelled into what were once citizens’ gardens.

We also returned to the village of Iitate. We’d taken measurements back in 2011, ten days after the start of the disaster, when citizens had not yet been evacuated. It was still heavily contaminated, having suffered the full extent of the explosions at Fukushima with no shelter from any surrounding mountains that could have blocked some of the radioactive fallout.

The first thing that struck me on returning to Iitate was the heavy traffic – only this time the cars were mostly full of decontamination workers, and the trucks were filled with radioactive waste. Hundreds of workers were labouring intensively in a vain attempt at decontamination. At a rough guess, I would say that over 1,000 workers are engaged in trying to decontaminate this one place.

It appears to be a political operation, one designed to give the impression that even after a nuclear disaster the problem is “manageable”. Radiation levels in Iitate show no prospect of falling to what is deemed acceptable. At no less than 96% of the locations we monitored radiation levels that exceeded the government’s target level.

This is the overwhelming and unsolvable nature of a nuclear crisis. When a major nuclear disaster occurs, the damage is long-lived, pervasive, and impossible to rectify. It generates enormous amounts of waste for which there is no safe storage. It literally destroys entire communities and people’s way of life.

Fukushima’s citizens are having to live with the gross injustice of having lost everything to a nuclear disaster for which they were in no way responsible. Now they are being stripped of the meagre and inadequate support they received as they are effectively forced back into radioactively contaminated areas.

They are being offered up purely for political reasons amid the Japanese government’s effort to restart nuclear reactors. From the perspective of public safety and human rights there is only one just and fair policy: if citizens do not want to return to contaminated communities, where they cannot work safely in the fields or forests as many once did, they should receive adequate compensation that allows them to establish new lives for themselves elsewhere.

But, if the Abe government gets its way, not only will more Fukushima victims be stripped of their already inadequate compensation, but more Japanese citizens will continue to live with the looming threat of a similar disaster and the same grossly unjust and inhumane fate.

Japan has been nuclear-free for over a year, and no electricity blackouts have occurred. The Japanese government should turn its back on nuclear power and instead opt for an energy policy based on improving energy efficiency and expanding renewable energy. This would protect its citizens from a repetition of the horrors of Fukushima and set the country on track to meet its climate commitments by 2020.

Governor Ito, and his officials in the Kagoshima prefecture where the Sendai nuclear plant is located should heed the lessons of the Fukushima catastrophe and go all-out for a clean and risk-free energy future.

Jan Vande Putte is a specialist in radiation safety who trained at the Technical University of Delft. He has participated in environmental surveys of radioactive contamination in Belgium, France, Japan, Russia, Spain and Ukraine. He is an energy campaigner with Greenpeace Belgium.

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