The clean energy transition: Are we moving fast enough?
March 11, 2022
By Rachel Martin
The transition to clean energy must be fair across multiple dimensions; here’s how we’re working with the research community
The much anticipated 26th Conference of the Parties (COP 26)(opens in new tab/window) last year was viewed as the most important meeting on climate action since the Paris Agreement(opens in new tab/window) was adopted in 2015. The latest report from the IPCC(opens in new tab/window) provides unequivocal evidence that human activity has led to global warming, and without urgent action, we are rapidly reaching tipping points that will affect economies and communities the world over.
Last year, many national governments and individual businesses, including Elsevier(opens in new tab/window), made climate pledges that aim to increase the pace of implementing the Paris Agreement. Additionally, the Glasgow Climate Pact(opens in new tab/window) singled out fossil fuels and called for coal to be “phased down” for the first time. Yet many still feel that these developments continue to lack the bold and necessary actions advocating for a rapid transition away from fossil fuels towards a clean, renewable energy. The simple question many have right now is: Are we moving fast enough?
Trends in renewable energy research
The first perspective we can consider is the published literature to determine where scientific discourse is taking place. If we focus in the first instance on research that contributes towards an energy transition, we need to be clear about what we define as “relevant” research. In Elsevier's 2021 Clean Energy: Pathways to Net Zero Report we developed a special data set based on Scopus data and focused on research published in the last decade that relates to SDG 7: Affordable and Clean Energy(opens in new tab/window) and SDG 13: Climate Action(opens in new tab/window). We called this NØEnergy research.
Our analysis showed that the total amount of NØEnergy research increased from around 16,000 journal publications in 2001 to more than 170,000 publications in 2020, making NØEnergy about 5% of total publications in 2020.
At Elsevier, we have seen NØEnergy articles published in our journals grow 5-fold over the course of nine years. We have developed several new journals focusing on this growing area, including Solar Compass(opens in new tab/window), launched together with the International Solar Alliance(opens in new tab/window) during COP 26.
Can we turn off fossil fuel research?
COP 26 sharpened society’s focus on oil and gas companies to accelerate their decarbonization strategies, and we see extra pressure from rising energy prices and concerns over energy security. But what does this mean for research and scientific debate around fossil fuels? Should we be switching off research in this area?
There isn’t a simple answer to this question. Current modeling by the IPCC(opens in new tab/window) and IEA(opens in new tab/window) indicate that fossil fuels will continue to play a role in the energy mix for many years to come(opens in new tab/window). This global transition requires unprecedented transformational change and necessitates certain trade-offs. For example, the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)(opens in new tab/window) rightly focus on areas such as renewable energy and climate change, but they also seek to reduce poverty and end hunger. Therein lies the challenge. We must face the reality that we need to reconcile our aims of eradicating poverty and ending hunger with the consequence that this will increase energy demand, particularly in the Global South. The focus therefore must be on how to be smarter with energy and energy use while stimulating the needed innovation and technology that will ensure we minimize the impact on both people and planet.
As Prof John Loughhead(opens in new tab/window), OBE, a member of the Elsevier Climate Advisory Board, explained:
Meeting the challenge of climate change requires a multi-decade transition, and we need to anticipate our knowledge needs over that period. While we have scenarios on probable system evolutions, they are based on what we know today and not what we might discover. As most experts accept fossil fuels will be part of both the transition and a net zero energy future, and will continue to be a unique feedstock for modern materials, is planning to exploit fossil resources beyond 2030 using technology from more than 20 years ago socially responsible?
We need to focus on continued innovation and better ways of meeting our energy and materials needs in socially acceptable ways.
This also means we need to stimulate and encourage research on all aspects of the energy transition. An example can be found in a journal such as Fuel(opens in new tab/window), which has for the past 90 years been the leading source of primary research work in fuel science and has also seen the evolution of the field moving towards alternative energy sources and sustainability. Between 2019 and 2020, about 41.2% of publications published in Fuel were linked to the SDGs, including 27% related specifically to Goal 7: Affordable and Clean Energy(opens in new tab/window) and 14.3% related to Goal 13: Climate Action(opens in new tab/window).
A fast and fair transition?
As acknowledged by the Editorial Board of Cell Press's One Earth(opens in new tab/window) journal in their Powering a Net Zero future issue(opens in new tab/window), it has been a fundamental truth that historically, “energy creates wealth” and in the process also creates pollution, inequalities and injustice. If we look at a country such as India, whose economy is expected to become the world’s third-largest by 2030, their expected energy demand is set to increase by 25% to 50% by 2050, according to IEA India Energy Outlook 2021(opens in new tab/window). With over 80% of India’s energy currently coming from coal, oil and solid biomass, the phasing out of fossil fuels will impact employment opportunities and regional development.
Additionally, insights from the Lancet Commission on Health and Pollution(opens in new tab/window) clearly show the healthcare costs associated with household air pollution caused by cooking, heating and lighting. These costs consume nearly 10% of global gross domestic product(opens in new tab/window) and cause at least 12.6 million people to die(opens in new tab/window) from preventable environmental causes. This means we not only need a rapid scale-up of technology but also more integrated approaches toward policy and planning.This demands not only a rapid scale-up of technology but also a more integrated approach to policy and planning.
Effective policies regarding energy, transport, housing and agriculture are required to mitigate climate change risks and adaptation, particularly in cities. For instance, energy policies that facilitate or scale up household access to clean fuels for cooking, heating and lighting in low- and middle-income countries will help avert the 3.5 million deaths per year that result from exposure to household air pollution. The Commission argues that “we need to move beyond a 'do-no-harm' approach and ensure that development actively and explicitly improves the environmental and social conditions that give rise to, and expose populations to, disease.”
Simply put, the global energy system transition must not only be fast but also be fair across multiple dimensions.
What is Elsevier's role in this discussion?
Elsevier as an academic publisher and data analytics company has a role to support the research community in accelerating quality, peer-reviewed research and new scientific knowledge and providing insights that help with the application of that knowledge toward solutions for the energy transition.
As Laura Hassink, Managing Director of STM Journals, said:
Addressing climate change is one of the biggest challenges society faces. We are on our own journey to achieve our net zero commitment for all emissions by 2040 as well as supporting our research communities in advancing the science. We are committed to stimulating content and insights that will make a positive contribution to the knowledge needed for a socially accepted energy transition.
Elsevier has a strong commitment to taking action on climate, both through our own organization and by contributing to global research and innovation. Our journey started over a decade ago with a clear focus to reduce our own direct emissions and set science-based environmental targets. Since 2010, Elsevier and our parent company, RELX(opens in new tab/window), have achieved a 70% reduction in our direct location-based emissions (so-called Scope 1 and 2). We have also been net zero since 2020(opens in new tab/window) for our direct emissions and for our indirect emissions such as work-related flights, cloud computing, home-based working and commuting.
However, we also recognize that a small proportion of our customers operate in carbon-intensive industries, and a small number of journals (less than 1%) cover fossil fuel industries. As we go on our own journey as a company and support the global research community towards the transition to renewable, clean energy, we know we have more work to do. This was one of the reasons we launched our climate action program last year. An integral part of this was the formation of an independent external Climate Advisory Board, which convenes distinguished experts to guide and prioritize our actions and enable us to accelerate our progress.
In less than a year, we have implemented key changes to our approach. Our Elsevier Energy Books team implemented the Energy with Purpose(opens in new tab/window) mission, which means we will only commission new content that supports and advances the energy transition and the reduction of CO2 emissions to meet the world’s energy needs. This stance is something we see reflected in the content portfolio: 75% of our energy books are now focused on renewable, nuclear and energy grids.
Scientific discoveries on cleaner and more efficient technologies across all parts of the energy mix are needed to help us meet our future energy needs. Helping researchers understand and meet those future energy needs remains the focus for our energy journals — especially in relation to advances in batteries and renewable energy sources, as well as in technologies aimed at reducing environmental pollution.
We will be working with our editors and society partners to review the aims and scopes of relevant Elsevier journals that have historically focused on fossil fuel energy to better align their mission so they can attract the best scientific research that supports the energy transition.
Our geospatial product, Geofacets, is now increasingly used for renewable energy, such as locating wind farms, and we are in the process of aligning our product development to focus entirely on adding renewable energy related content.
We also recognize that sustainability needs to be embedded throughout our organization and in every aspect of our work. Sustainability is a key part of our strategic priorities. Internally,we are supported by our employee network group SUSTAIN. This group’s mission is to enable a culture of sustainability and mobilize everyone at Elsevier to feel empowered to take action on climate.
We take the climate crisis very seriously and are encouraged by the constructive dialogue and partnerships with stakeholders around the pressing issue of climate action. We look forward to releasing our net zero action plan and reporting on our progress in the coming months, and we welcome feedback.