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By Roger Highfield on

Decarbonising global energy by 2050 could save trillions

As the costs of fossil energy have skyrocketed since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, some have claimed that going green is too expensive. Roger Highfield, Science Director, reports on an recently published study from Oxford University that suggests a fast transition to clean energy will cost less than a slow or no transition.

Achieving a zero-carbon energy system by around 2050 is possible and profitable, according to a study that concludes a transition to a decarbonised global energy system over the next three decades will save the planet at least $12 trillion compared to continuing to rely on expensive, insecure and environmentally damaging fossil fuels.

Green transition sceptics have been too influenced by outdated models, according to the authors. In the past, forecasts have underestimated the deployment rates of renewables, while overestimating their cost, according to a peer-reviewed study by Oxford University in the journal Joule that concludes the assumption that going green will be too costly is ‘just wrong’.

‘The belief that the green energy transition will be expensive has been a major driver of the ineffective response to climate change for the last forty years,’ they write. ‘In response to our opening question, Is there a path forward that can get us there cheaply and quickly?, our answer is: Very likely, and the savings are probably quite large.’

Green technology costs have fallen significantly over the last decade, and are likely to continue to drop according to the study, conducted before the current energy crisis, based on conservative assumptions about clean energy technologies.

'Renewable Energy', by Phillip Fooks, 1995. from the Science Museum Group Collection
Renewable Energy, by Phillip Fooks, 1995. Oil on canvas showing landscape and turbines of the Penrhyddlan and Llidiartywaun wind farm in Wales (built 1990-92)

‘This shows a win-win-win scenario, where rapidly transitioning to clean energy results in lower energy system costs than continuing to depend on fossil fuels, while providing more energy to the global economy and, importantly, makes the distribution of energy around the world fairer,’ commented, Oliver Carpenter, who is curating a new Science Museum gallery about the energy transition. 

The study’s ‘Fast Transition’ scenario shows what the researchers say is a realistic possible future fossil-free energy system by around 2050, providing 55% more energy services globally than today by increasing the use of solar, wind, batteries, electric vehicles, and clean fuels such as green hydrogen, which is made from renewable electricity.

Lead author Rupert Way, postdoctoral researcher at Oxford’s Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, commented: ‘Past models predicting high costs for transitioning to zero carbon energy have deterred companies from investing. But clean energy costs have fallen sharply over the last decade, much faster than those models expected.’

‘Scaling up key green technologies will continue to drive their costs down, and the faster we go, the more we will save. Accelerating the transition to renewable energy is now the best bet not just for the planet, but for energy costs too.’

In the study, the Oxford team analysed thousands of transition cost scenarios produced by major energy models, and called on data on 45 years of solar energy costs, 37 years of wind energy costs and 25 years for battery storage.

The team found that the real cost of solar energy dropped twice as fast as the most ambitious projections in these models, revealing that over the last 20 years previous models had badly overestimated the future costs of key clean energy technologies.  

The costs for key storage technologies, such as batteries and hydrogen electrolysis, are also likely to fall dramatically. Meanwhile, the costs of nuclear have consistently increased over the last five decades.

‘There is a pervasive misconception that switching to clean, green energy will be painful, costly and mean sacrifices for us all – but that’s just wrong,’ says Doyne Farmer, who leads the team at the Institute for New Economic Thinking at the Oxford Martin School, and is a professor at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico.

‘Renewable costs have been trending down for decades. They are already cheaper than fossil fuels in many situations, and our research shows that they will become cheaper than fossil fuels across almost all applications in the years to come. And if we accelerate the transition, they will become cheaper faster. Completely replacing fossil fuels with clean energy by 2050 will save us trillions.’

Farmer adds that the study’s conclusion that it is economic to accelerate the green and clean transition comes as ‘the world is facing a simultaneous inflation crisis, national security crisis, and climate crisis, all caused by our dependence on high cost, insecure, polluting, fossil fuels with volatile prices.’

Cameron Hepburn, Director of the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, who took part in a recent discussion of climate change and biodiversity held by the Science Museum and Natural History Museum, commented: ‘Human ingenuity can be astonishing. Our big brains enabled us to destroy the natural world at an incredible rate; but the same brains can be harnessed to protect the environment. This is what we are seeing in the clean energy space, and many other innovations in other areas are around the corner. The key question is whether they come fast enough.’

The research published in the journal Joule is a collaboration between the Institute for New Economic Thinking at the Oxford Martin School, the Oxford Martin Programme on the Post-Carbon Transition, the Smith School of Enterprise & Environment at the University of Oxford, and SoDa Labs at Monash University.