Advancing the global energy transition — lessons from 6 leaders

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Danny Richmond, Community Lead, Young Global Leaders, World Economic Forum


  • Transitioning our energy systems toward sustainable sources is imperative if the world is going to keep global warming below 1.5°C.
  • To this end, in June 2022, a select group of Young Global Leaders attended a course on Advancing the Global Energy Transition at The Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment at Princeton University.
  • Participants examined the core challenges and opportunities of transitioning to a more environmentally resilient and sustainable energy society.

Limiting global warming to below 1.5°C is a monumental task — but it is achievable. Fundamental to limiting global warming is the sustainable transition of our global energy systems.

In pursuit of this ambitious goal, 40 Young Global Leaders (YGLs) gathered at The Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment at Princeton University in June 2022 to learn the technological, organizational, behavioural and financial innovations necessary to effectively mitigate and build resilience to the impacts of climate change. Through a blend of presentations, panels, and hands-on exercises, participants learned about sustainable energy technologies and systems, robust and adaptive energy systems planning and decision-making challenges and opportunities.

We asked six leaders from different sectors and regions to share their insights on how and what they learned.

Finding a balanced approach

Billy Mawasha, Chief Executive Officer, Kolobe Nala Investments, South Africa

The transition towards sustainable energy resources is a key imperative for our generation. To make this happen, we will need a “balanced diet” of renewable energy resources to achieve a transformed and sustainable energy supply system, as proposed by Professor Jesse Jenkins. In particular, the winning strategy includes a mixture of renewables like wind and solar, energy storage systems, such as battery storage and long duration storage with hydrogen, and it also includes firm low carbon energy sources — nuclear, biomass, gas or coal with carbon capture and storage. An effective strategy recognises the need for firm base load supply, and that it may come from resources like coal, gas, or nuclear — resources that developing countries have in abundance. It is critical, however, that these are repurposed to be low carbon through technologies like carbon capture and sequestration.

I believe that this would contribute immensely towards a just transition globally and challenge and hopefully realign the expectation of 100% renewables.

Cooperation amongst sectors and new technologies is crucial

Joy Dunn, Head, Operations, Commonwealth Fusion Systems, USA

The YGL Princeton module was a fantastic way to connect with YGLs new and old for a broad discussion on the world’s clean energy transition and how we all play a part in reaching net-zero emissions by 2050.

We are all part of a larger ecosystem needed to enable clean energy for the world, and it will take global-scale cooperation across sectors from manufacturing and supply chain, to political and social organizations, community building and finance. While my day-to-day focus is on the engineering and manufacturing of new technology innovations, we will only be successful with technology rollouts with collaboration across all of these sectors, and support from the communities where the technology will be deployed. I’m leaving the module energized to continue working on clean energy technology with a deeper understanding of the broader climate change challenge and the cooperation needed to reach net-zero in the coming years.

Fueling decarbonization requires long-term thinking and planning

Sanae Lahlou, Country Representative, United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), Morocco

The module helped me understand the underlying factors that could help countries to achieve the projected actions in their fight against global warming and to meet the urgent need for a sustainable and just energy transition.

In my current position as the Country Representative of UNIDO in Morocco, it also helped me realize what made Morocco a world-class green energy producer! Long-term planning, clear governance and lowering the cost of the energy produced from renewables.

Discover

What’s the World Economic Forum doing about the transition to clean energy?

Moving to clean energy is key to combating climate change, yet in the past five years, the energy transition has stagnated.

Energy consumption and production contribute to two-thirds of global emissions, and 81% of the global energy system is still based on fossil fuels, the same percentage as 30 years ago. Plus, improvements in the energy intensity of the global economy (the amount of energy used per unit of economic activity) are slowing. In 2018 energy intensity improved by 1.2%, the slowest rate since 2010.

Effective policies, private-sector action and public-private cooperation are needed to create a more inclusive, sustainable, affordable and secure global energy system.

Benchmarking progress is essential to a successful transition. The World Economic Forum’s Energy Transition Index, which ranks 115 economies on how well they balance energy security and access with environmental sustainability and affordability, shows that the biggest challenge facing energy transition is the lack of readiness among the world’s largest emitters, including US, China, India and Russia. The 10 countries that score the highest in terms of readiness account for only 2.6% of global annual emissions.

To future-proof the global energy system, the Forum’s Shaping the Future of Energy and Materials Platform is working on initiatives including, Systemic Efficiency, Innovation and Clean Energy and the Global Battery Alliance to encourage and enable innovative energy investments, technologies and solutions.

Additionally, the Mission Possible Platform (MPP) is working to assemble public and private partners to further the industry transition to set heavy industry and mobility sectors on the pathway towards net-zero emissions. MPP is an initiative created by the World Economic Forum and the Energy Transitions Commission.

Is your organisation interested in working with the World Economic Forum? Find out more here.

Investing in the technology, capital and infrastructure is needed to make a green future viable

Claudia Vergueiro Massei, Head, Executive Office and Transformation, Motion Control, Siemens, Germany

As we learned through the example of Net Zero America, Princeton University’s proposed pathways to a Net-zero future, successfully transitioning the energy matrix from its current status to a mix of renewable energy sources is highly dependent on a few key factors.

First, a much higher pace of investment in clean energy generation and transmission infrastructure — there is a clear need to increase the pipeline of projects and their rate of completion. Capital will be vital for this matter, as well as investment in R&D to make new technologies financially viable faster. A good example here is hydrolyzers, which will need to see their cost drop by over 30% in order to make green hydrogen competitive.

Second is bringing the people along. Without the support of local communities when it comes to changes in their environment, a lot of the large-scale projects may not move forward. “People” also refers to the workforce of incumbent fossil fuel industries, who must be mobilized and reskilled in several clean energy technologies to avoid a shortage of labor in the energy industry as a whole.

In both cases, diversification of energy technologies is key. Solely relying on one or two of them is not enough, especially in times of increasing probability of climate disruptions.

Energy transition solutions must consider reliability, affordability and social equity

Dorjee Sun, Chief Executive Officer, BioEconomy, Singapore

It was a revelation to me that projected future energy demands needed a diversified portfolio approach, systems thinking and that the scale of the investment required was orders of magnitude bigger than investors are currently even contemplating.

Indeed, as an innovation startup technologist, I am still wrestling with the fact that hail mary clean tech isn’t considered in peer-reviewed energy transition projections, and that we must prioritise reliability, affordability and social equity above our carbon footprint alone.

However. the penny dropped when Professor Jesse Jenkins explained that the future energy mix must be diverse like your diet. As much as I like bananas, I would be bananas to only eat bananas.

Despite its difficulty, we have a moral responsibility to complete this task

Carlos de Hart, Chief Executive Officer, Agroince, Colombia

As a species we have a clear responsibility for the negative impact of climate change that we’ve witnessed in the past decades — wildfires, droughts and flooding, for example. Therefore, we also have an enormous moral obligation to change that reality and forge a better future for our children. The strength of our response relies on bringing together actors with diverse backgrounds and knowledge that, by sharing a holistic and transversal approach to the challenges we face, deliver a complete and comprehensive vision of the problem at hand and respond effectively to it, despite its complexity.

Learn more about how the World Economic Forum is accelerating the Energy Transition.3

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