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Australia itself has long been a climate laggard and a major coal exporter — but as China and other big customers plan to cut their emissions, taking their business with them, that may be changing. Dozens of the world’s biggest economies have adopted targets for net-zero emissions of greenhouse gases by 2050. And 189 countries have joined the 2015 Paris climate accord, which aims to limit global warming to well below 2C. In a race to curb climate change, countries are rushing to cut fossil fuels, boost clean energy — and transform their economies in the process.
Countries or regions that master clean technology, export green energy or import less fossil fuel stand to gain from the new system, while those that rely on exporting fossil fuels — such as the Middle East or Russia — could see their power decline.
When it comes to exporting clean electricity, countries such as Norway, Bhutan and France are already far ahead.
In a few months’ time, Norway and the UK will finish constructing the world’s longest subsea electricity cable, the North Sea Link. The Norwegian side of the cable runs through snow-capped mountains and a deep lake, then travels underwater for more than 720km, across the North Sea, until it reaches the UK. The highly specialised cable is also manufactured in Norway, in a factory located next to a fjord, so that it can be easily loaded on to ships and taken out to sea for installation. The North Sea Link will be Norway’s seventh subsea interconnector, allowing the country to export its abundant hydropower to its neighbours.
Whether in trucks or cars or home heating, the use of electricity is already surging. It provides about 20 per cent of energy today, and will have to rise to 50 per cent by 2050, if countries are to meet their climate commitments, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency.
“Our world order has been based on oil,” Lont adds. But that is now changing: “As we go from carbon [fossil fuels] to electrons, we will have a world order where the electron is more important than the carbon.”
Today, 75 per cent of the world economy has a decarbonisation horizon. This is a major shift.”
The IEA expects that renewables will soon pass coal as the biggest source of power generation. “We can say that renewables were immune to Covid. Both solar and wind saw significant increases [last year],” Fatih Birol, head of the IEA, said at a press conference in January. “Our numbers show that renewables are set to become the largest source of generation by 2025, overtaking coal — and ending the fossil-fuel domination of the last decades.”
At the annual UN climate talks, Saudi Arabia and Russia routinely play a disruptive role. (Saudi Arabia wants it both ways: a big plan to expand its solar power while continuing to produce oil and gas.) Poland, a coal producer, dragged its feet for months before reluctantly agreeing to the EU’s net-zero emissions target. In a world disrupted by coronavirus, fossil-fuel-producing countries fear further job losses.
China produces more than 70 per cent of all solar photovoltaic panels, half of the world’s electric vehicles and a third of its wind power. It is also the biggest producer of batteries and controls many of the raw materials crucial for clean-tech supply chains, such as cobalt, rare earth minerals and polysilicon, a key ingredient in solar panels.
“If you talk about the clean energy technology race, in many ways, it looks as if the race has already been run, and the winner is China,” says Van de Graaf. “Other players are trying to catch up.” The US, for example, has limited domestic supplies of cobalt and lithium, and the US State Department has for the past few years tried to improve access to rare earth minerals, due to their strategic importance.
China is still the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases and is heavily dependent on coal, which supplies 58 per cent of its electricity.
China dominates the supply chain from the mines in the DRC to the final production of lithium-ion batteries. Its companies control more than 85 per cent of the world’s refined cobalt chemical capacity, essential for most lithium-ion batteries. It also mines almost all of the world’s rare earth minerals, which are used in electric motors and wind turbines. Producing an electric vehicle without involving China is almost impossible
The cost of lithium-ion batteries is now just one-seventh of what it was a decade ago, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance.
The UK is the largest producer of offshore wind power globally and prime minister Boris Johnson has pledged to make it “the Saudi Arabia of wind”, with a plan to quadruple offshore wind capacity by 2030. Europe has long been ahead in this industry, and European companies still hold a lead in turbine manufacturing.