When solar farms in sub-Saharan Africa start to become more common than coal-fired power plants, it is time for the rest of the world to take notice. The clean energy revolution is happening right now under our feet.
Two centuries of burning fossil fuels brought development to much of the world, but also brought large-scale climate change and a host of severe impacts: millions of deaths from air pollution and excessive heat, lack of access to modern energy services for billions of the world’s poor and geopolitical conflicts over resources. While climate change is one of the most urgent crises of our time, extensive research indicates that the possibility of quickly switching to 100% clean, renewable energy that will mitigate these impacts is at our fingertips.
The recently signed Paris Agreement is a watershed moment for the clean energy transition. It provides the strongest market signal yet for companies and countries to double down on their renewable energy investments and to continue moving away from fossil fuels.
That change is already happening in many parts of the developing world. The rapidly unfolding energy transition is bypassing coal and going straight to low-cost renewables. As countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America seize this chance to "leapfrog" over fossil fuels and expand their clean energy capacity, they not only benefit from economic growth and cheap electricity, they also increase their security and avoid the severe damage to health and the environment that burning fossil fuels causes.
In fact, the Paris Climate Conference prompted the creation of the African Renewable Energy Initiative, a continent-wide program to massively increase Africa’s clean energy over the next 15 years while bypassing the pitfalls of fossil fuels.
As the new African Renewable Energy Initiative indicates, countries have the ability not only to leapfrog fossil fuels, but also to replace them while still keeping the lights on. Our research, conducted at Stanford University and the University of California, shows that by 2050 nearly every country in the world can transition its all-purpose energy to 100% clean, renewable wind, water and sunlight.
Africa has significant clean energy resources available that make it technically and economically feasible for 80% of the continent's energy to be switched to renewables from fossil fuels no later than 2030.
As Africa’s current population grows from 1.1 billion to 1.6 billion by 2030, wind and solar could overtake fossil fuels as the dominant forms of energy. For example, our analysis shows that South Africa could get 56% of its electricity from utility-scale solar, Kenya 28%, and Mozambique 34%, all for lower cost than electrifying with coal. While conservative scenarios predict about half of the continent will have access to the electricity grid by 2030, this means 640 million Africans will plug into the grid for the first time thanks to renewables.
This is not just pie in the sky. Our work is based on detailed engineering and an itemized mix of technologies and costs for 139 nations, including how much land and rooftop area would be needed to add renewable technologies. Some may wonder where all of this energy will come from. The vast majority of electricity will be generated by wind and solar power: nearly a third from wind, over half from solar power (the majority utility-scale photovoltaics) and the rest via hydroelectric dams, geothermal and tidal power.
The clean energy transition will occur by electrifying everything: cars, heating, agricultural and industrial equipment can all run on electricity. Rapidly advancing battery technology ensures this power will be there when needed. Electrifying reduces power demand by about a third thanks to the efficiency of electricity over burning fossil fuels.
There is no doubt that undertaking this type of massive transformation in developing countries will be challenging. It will require sufficient financial and political support, which can be hard to come by in countries that experience political instability and low public financing. Public money will be necessary to get the ball rolling through initiatives like the public funds transfers from developed countries to developing ones, set up by the Paris Agreement. These funds will open the door for trillions of dollars of private sector investment.
The benefits of achieving this transition are global. They include eliminating 4 to 7 million premature air pollution deaths per year—similar to the annual deaths caused by smoking. It would provide steady power to four billion people that do not currently have it, and create over 20 million long-term clean energy jobs. Turbocharging the clean energy transition is also critical to tackling climate change.
Countries that choose to skip past fossil fuels in favor of renewables avoid increased healthcare costs and see stronger job growth and greater political stability. The clean energy transition will avoid air pollution costs that that are over 3% of annual world GDP, and prevent $16 to $20 trillion per year in global climate costs by 2050.
The main barriers to a more rapid conversion are neither technical nor economic. They are social and political. As Western leaders like President Francoise Hollande of France acknowledge, there is a huge opportunity for developing countries to move immediately to new, clean energy technologies. The moment is ripe for international policymakers to leverage the Paris Agreement’s strong market signal and accelerate the current progress. The roadmaps to clean energy that we have developed give confidence to world leaders that the path to 100% renewable energy is clear and achievable. Much of the world is already heading down that path to a clean energy future. The more we support that transition, the better off we all are.
Mark Jacobson is a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University and director of its Atmosphere and Energy Program. Jacobson develops computer models about the effects of different energy technologies and their emissions on air pollution and climate. He is a Senior Fellow at both the Woods Institute for the Environment and the Precourt Institute for Energy at Stanford. He's also the co-founder of the nonprofit Solutions Project.