Presidents Column: April 2019

As we celebrate our 50th Earth Day, the environmental movement is shifting to a global climate focus


At the start of this week, on 22 April we celebrated, for the 50th time, Earth Day, which started in the U.S. in 1970, and then became a global event under the leadership of Denis Hayes, one of the original Earth Day organizers, in 1990. That year’s Earth Day was a massive event involving 141 countries and leading to the creation of the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.


Earth Day was initially created to raise public awareness about air and water pollution, and to get environmental protection onto the national political stage. I was a graduate student in Colorado on that first Earth Day, and like millions of other Americans I celebrated the event, and the launch of an era where many environmental laws came into effect. Although world population has more than doubled, from 3.7 B to 7.7 B, since 1970, the political activism annual Earth Day events, has resulted in many regions around the world to enjoy cleaner air and water today than what we had on the first Earth Day.


The issue of climate change was almost entirely absent on the first Earth Day, and the role of renewable energy (other than large hydro plants) as a viable option to control local air and water pollution was still largely missing from environmental mitigation discussions, due to high costs and a primitive and limited commercial market. In 1970 atmospheric concentrations of CO2  ranged between 322-328 ppm, compared to a pre-industrial level of around 250 ppm, and the emissions of carbon due to fossil fuel use was around 4000 Gt per year.  These markers were catching the attention of scientists around the world, but the extreme health and ecological impacts caused by serious local air and water quality degradation was the primary focus of attention in the early years of Earth Day.


By 1990, the year that marks the “globalization” of Earth Day, the warnings of climate change had begun to be raised with governments around the world. Since that time we have seen the energy-related emissions of CO2 grow relentlessly by 50% from around 21 Gt to a record high of 33.1 Gt today, resulting in current atmospheric CO2 concentrations over 400 ppm. The threat of climate change to our growing population is now a major focus of Earth Day events.


However, we have also seen recent dramatic drops in the cost of the most promising technologies to mitigate climate change, renewable energy sources. For example, solar technology costs for grid-scale PV systems have dropped from USD $0.36/kW-hr to less than USD $0.10/kW-hr in just the last ten years.

More and more, most governments are seeing a clear solution to mitigating the urgent climate crisis: renewable energy, and especially solar energy, technologies.


This solution came into clear focus at the recent Berlin Energy Transition Dialogue (BETD) 2019. Over 2000 participants, including ISES Board Members Christine Lins, Eicke Weber, and myself, heard keynote speakers and numerous panel discussions describe the latest progress and challenges in the transformation of the entire global energy system to renewable and carbon free sources. Both good and bad news on the progress of this transformation were addressed.


Dr. Fatih Birol, Executive Director of the International Energy Agency, in his keynote address, remarked that there is a disconnect between political statements, such as national renewable or clean energy targets, and what is actually happening, where the biggest driver in the carbon emission increases mentioned is building new coal-fired power plants, particularly in Asia. These new fossil energy facilities locking us into many years of continued carbon emissions[1]. Furthermore, the significant advances in energy efficiency measures made in recent years has slowed, where two out of three buildings built today do not address any efficiency codes. If the world is to limit global warming to no more than 1.5 0C by mid-century, global CO2 emissions need to drop by nearly half in the next twenty years; yet 90% of these emissions are already locked in due to ongoing development of infrastructure requiring fossil energy use. This means we need a virtual moratorium on the building of any further fossil fuel infrastructure starting immediately, so that annual global carbon emissions can decrease significantly beginning next year.


Two key reports have come out recently addressing pathways to overcome the challenges and achieve the climate mitigation goals set out by the Paris Climate Agreement of 2015: A landmark work by LUT University (Finland) and the Energy Watch Group[2] titled “Global Energy System Based on 100% Renewable Energy” and IRENA’s “Global Energy Transformation:  A Roadmap to 2050” (introduced at BETD 2019). As the world’s population is expected to grow to 9.7 B by 2050, and with energy demand increasing dramatically during this time, both reports offer similar conclusions and common-sense recommendations regarding the urgent transformation of the global energy system to 100% renewables by 2050. Highlights from the reports include: 1) that the transformation will require a significant growth in the power sector, including electrification of the heating and cooling and transport sectors; 2) that a much greater emphasis on policy mechanisms, such as a price on carbon and creation of mandated national targets, is required; 3) that energy efficiency measures must increase substantially; and 4) that the transformation, as well as investments in this transformation, must accelerate substantially over current practices to achieve the emission-reduction goals called out in the Paris Agreement. The pathways offered by both reports show that the needed transformation results in significant market growth in solar PV as well as other solar technologies, along with economic and employment gains throughout the world.

Clearly the world has changed much since the first Earth Day. April 22, 2019 marked not only a celebration of what has been accomplished in the past 50 years, but also a reminder of the more urgent action that must take place in order to ensure a healthy and sustainable living environment and balanced ecosystem for the world’s growing population. Driven by the urgency to accelerate the transformation, ISES is intensifying its efforts to raise awareness, grow community and inspire actions through its publications, events and outreach.


[1] Dr. Birol noted that the average age of coal plants in the western world is 42 years but is only 11 years in Asia.

[2] ISES will present a webinar on this report by these two organizations in late May 2019


This article was written by:

Dr. David Renné

ISES Immediate Past President