The Earth is heating up. According to NASA, in 2020 the planet’s average temperature was 1.02°C warmer than the baseline 1950–1980 mean. Global warming, in addition to causing the polar ice caps to melt and sea levels to rise, is causing other climate changes like desertification and an increase in extreme weather events such as hurricanes, floods and fires: the distortion of the climate risks causing incalculable damage.
The scientific community is in agreement that this is due to anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, especially since the Industrial Revolution. The main such gas, carbon dioxide, originates largely from the energy sector (including but not limited to the generation of electricity).
In December 2015, at COP 21 in Paris, an international agreement was signed that set the target of limiting global warming by the end of this century to below 2°C compared with pre-industrial levels and preferably limiting it to 1.5°C. COP26, which took place in November 2021 in Glasgow, confirmed the commitment to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.
In order to achieve this goal, our main tool is the energy transition, i.e., the shift from an energy mix based on fossil fuels to one that produces very limited, if not zero, carbon emissions, based on renewable energy sources. A huge contribution to decarbonization comes from the electrification of consumption, replacing fossil fuel-generated electricity with energy generated from renewable sources, which also makes other sectors like transport cleaner; the digitalization of networks also contributes by improving energy efficiency.
Historically speaking, energy transitions are not new. In the past we have seen huge epoch-marking shifts like the transition from using wood to using coal in the 19th century or from coal to oil in the 20th century. But what distinguishes this transition from its predecessors is the urgency of protecting the planet from the greatest threat it has ever had to face, and of doing so as quickly as possible. This impetus has accelerated the changes in the energy sector: in just one decade (2010-2019) the costs of renewable technologies have fallen by 80% in the case of solar photovoltaics and 60% for onshore wind power.
The energy transition, however, is not only limited to the gradual closure of coal-fired power stations and the development of clean energies: it is a paradigm shift that concerns the entire system.
This solution can provide benefits not only for the climate but also for the economy and for society. The digitalization of electricity grids can usher in the age of smart grids and open the way for new services for consumers. From the environmental perspective, renewable sources and electric mobility reduce pollution, while coal-fired power stations can be repurposed in line with the principles of the circular economy. Concerning social sustainability, the new jobs created can absorb those people previously working in the thermoelectric sector. It is important that the energy transition be inclusive and ensure that no one is left behind.