The 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, also known as COP26 (Conference of the Parties), held between October 31st and November 12th in Glasgow, was a bit of a mixed bag.

It was not a disaster but at the same time, it did not achieve all the goals that environmentalists were hoping for. Considering the nature of the problem, with more than 200 countries involved and looking at their self-interest, it is probably better to look at the conference outcomes in terms of a glass half full instead of half empty.

There were definitely some wins. The Paris Agreement established the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5℃ compared to pre-industrial levels by the end of this century. An International Energy Agency (IEA) tally of the commitments, along with one by India to boost renewables and reach net zero by 2070, found that they could hold global warming to 1.8 by the turn of the century.

Environmentalists say, perhaps with some justification, that this is not good enough. But it is way better than the “catastrophic” 2.7°C projected by the U.N. in its Emissions Gap Report 2021, released earlier in October this year.

The good news is that the COP26 pledges bring projected warming to below 2°C for the first time in history, which should count for something. However, a note of caution is required as these are just pledges on a course of action that spans over the next 30-50 years. A lot could change within such a long timeframe.

At the same time, the commitments also confirm that finally global warming is no longer being considered as some sort of grand conspiracy theory or another battlefront between the Global South and North.

Affordability

One of the key drivers for increased commitments to renewable energy is cost. Thanks to scale manufacturing and key technological advances, solar power generation costs have fallen below the cost of fossil fuel.

According to IEA, the new utility-scale solar projects now cost US$30-60/MWh (megawatt hour) in Europe and the US and just US$20-40/MWh in China and India, where “revenue support mechanisms” such as guaranteed prices are in place.

IEA further notes that this is cheaper than new coal-fired power plants, when comparing the average net cost of electricity generation for a power generation plant over its lifetime. They fall in the same range as the operating cost of existing coal plants in China and India. Another estimate pegs electricity cost for a largescale solar power plant today to as little as US$0.70 per watt.

Just 10 years ago, solar was the most expensive option for power generation. Since then, the cost has dropped 90 per cent, making it the cheapest form of power generation. Wind power has also seen a dramatic decline in pricing with the lifetime costs of new wind farms dropping by 71 per cent over the last decade.

While coal and gas/oil-fired power plants have also become cheaper and more efficient, one reason that solar wins out is that its raw material input – the sun’s rays – is free. Contrast that with thermal power plants, where coal accounts for 40 per cent of the total cost of electricity.

Six hurdles remain

The cost-push factor should make renewable energy a no-brainer. However, in reality, things are not so simple.

First, there are already a lot of in-service fossil-fuel based power plants, whose average life span range from 30 to 40 years. While solar is cheaper when it comes to new-build power plants, it is not always the case with existing fossil fuel plants where depreciation costs have already been factored in.

Another major issue is that while fossil-fuel plants can run round-the-clock, solar works only when the sun shines and wind farms generate electricity when the breeze is blowing. A national electricity power grid needs a minimum level of electricity flowing through it at all times, or risk collapsing.

Third, renewable electricity generation, which depends on nature, can only work with largescale power storage technology. This allows power to be stored during periods when the plant remains idle due to lack of sunlight.

There has been a lot of innovation and breakthroughs in power storage technologies. Unfortunately, they are yet to hit the scale at a price point that makes it easily accessible, especially for poorer countries.

Another major problem with solar is the sheer size of the power plants which confines them only to certain sparsely populated areas. Let’s take the example of two of India’s top solar projects. They each generate more than 2000 MW of power, but are spread across more than 50 square kilometres of land.

Both power plants (and many others) sit in areas that are relatively empty of human habitation. However, even a geographically large country such as India has only a limited space for such large power plants, considering that its average population density is 454.95 people, per square kilometre.

This brings in the fifth problem: transmission costs. With solar power plants being set up away from large population centres which need the energy, transmission cost (and transmission loss) are big challenges. Most existing power grids are not ready for the renewable energy revolution.

Sixth, building a green future requires a lot of money and help from the developed nations to the less developed ones. The 2015 Paris Agreement had mandated a US$100 billion yearly financial help to those who needed it the most and it was supposed to start from last year but hasn’t yet happened. Money will be an important component in building a greener future for all of us.

Food is also a problem

One final point that needs to be taken into account is food production. Current food production methods account for one-quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions while taking up half of the planet’s habitable surface.

The meat and dairy industries, for example, create 7.1 gigatons of greenhouse gases annually. That’s 14.5 per cent of total man-made emissions.

Research shows that beef is by far the biggest offender, generating 60 kilograms of greenhouse gas emissions per kilogram of meat produced. That’s more than twice the emissions of the next most polluting food: lamb.

With the current global population expected to reach 9.8 billion from the current 7.6 billion, some degree of diet shift will be required in order to the emission of greenhouse gases generated from food production. Alternative food, such as lab grown meat, will need as much focus and investment as green power generation technologies.

Lowering carbon and greenhouse gas emissions are the biggest challenge in the first century of this millennium. It would require a multi-faceted approach and global cooperation in order to stop and possibly reverse the damage done to our environment. The next couple of decades will be crucial and we will be able to find out if humanity has the mojo to tackle this existential problem.

Amit Roy Choudhury, a media consultant, and senior journalist writes about technology for GovInsider.

The Climate Report is a series of stories on COP26, the UN’s climate change conference held in Glasgow in November 2021.