Serious action to reduce CO2 emissions has been stymied in Australia and the US for the moment. So, to get an idea of what is likely to be feasible, and on what timescale, we have to look at Europe, which has both a working Emissions Trading Scheme and a bunch of special incentives to promote renewable energy. At least on the latter point, there is some cause for optimism.
Here’s a graph of new installed capacity and decommissioned capacity for 2009 from The European Wind Energy Association (link here was broken and is now fixed-JQ). The results pretty much speak for themselves, but I’ll add a couple of observations.
The fact that solar PV was a major source of new installed capacity surprised me. Until now, solar (along with fusion) has been one of the contenders for the tag “the energy source of the future and always will be”. But, on current trends, solar is set to be a major contributor in the future. Of course, the outcome so far has been the result of large subsidies, such as feed-in tariffs. But, even as the subsidies are cut back the volume of installations continues to grow. Before long, solar could be competitive with coal on the basis of the ETS and peak-load pricing, without the need for an extra “renewable” subsidy. Gas is likely to be cheapest for some time to come, but there are sound reasons for not wanting to depend entirely on an energy source that can be cut off at short notice.
The other point is that for coal (and also, less surprisingly for nuclear) installed capacity showed a net decline. The combination of the ETS and strong political opposition has made the construction of new coal-fired power stations in Europe almost impossible, at least without a commitment to CCS or some other sweetener.
On this issue, where Europe has led, the rest of the world will follow sooner or later. The big question is whether it will be too late. The good outcomes we are seeing in Europe suggest that, even with a few years’ slippage, big reductions in emissions will be possible in time to stabilise global climate.