Fiona Harvey Europe’s energy in 2050: Cutting CO2 by 80% no more expensive than business as usual

Making predictions about the state of the world in 40 years’ time is inevitably an almost impossible task. But, like most other developed countries, European Union member states have pledged to cut their emissions to a collective 80 per cent or more below 1990 levels by 2050. That is in line with the cuts scientists say will be needed from developed countries if we are to limit global temperature rises to 2 degrees Celsius.

So a group of organisations have put their heads together with some of the continent’s leading utilities and energy experts, and come up with a plan for how Europe can meet these stringent goals. The authors – McKinsey, European Climate Foundation, E3G – came up with some surprising results. They found that the cost of electricity by 2050 would be no higher than it would be under a high-carbon “business as usual” regime.

The capital cost of building the vast amounts of renewable power infrastructure needed will be huge, but the advantage is that once this cost has been paid, the running costs of renewable power generation are far lower than for conventional power stations.

In addition, Europe’s creaking power infrastructure will have to be updated in any case. Replacing old coal-fired power stations with new coal-fired power stations will also be expensive, so building wind turbines and solar farms instead will look less expensive by comparison.

Finally, investing in a smart grid that runs across the continent will be a huge help. There will be two key advantages. One is a massive improvement in energy efficiency, as the demand can be evened out and the supply matched to demand across vast areas at once. The second is that it takes away the potential instability from relying on renewables, because if the renewable energy sources are geographically dispersed – hydroelectric in the north, solar power in the south, wind in the North Sea and other coastal areas, waste and biomass everywhere – then that removes the problem of relying on a single intermittent and unpredictable renewable energy source such as wind.

To get to this future will be hard, though, as the report makes clear. Capital investment in low-carbon energy infrastructure must double in the next 15 years, the authors estimate. That will almost certainly push up the price of electricity in the shorter term, even though efficiency savings could offset much of that cost to consumers and businesses. Telling companies and individuals that they are paying more now but will pay less tomorrow is always a difficult message to sell.