This report was produced in partnership between Carbon Tracker and the Grantham Institute at Imperial College London. This study analyses the potential for continued cost
reductions in solar photovoltaics (PV) and electric vehicle (EV) technologies to displace demand for currently dominant fossil fuels and mitigate CO2 emissions. In doing so, the report reviews the validity of continuing to base corporate strategies on ‘business as usual’ scenarios.
Value destruction from low-carbon transformations should be avoided
Achieving climate stability will require deep and widespread changes in the global
energy system – the largest single source of CO2 emissions and focus of this report. Such
changes are afoot. Solar PV module costs have fallen 99% since 1976 with record global
installations being made for the second consecutive year in 2016.ii Similar downward
cost trends exist in other renewable energy technologies. Few predicted these energy
transformations, in what proved to be a costly oversight for many. For example, the
EU’s five largest utilities lost over €100bn in value from 2008 to 2013 largely because
of a failure to predict the penetration of low-carbon technologies resulting from this
cost deflation (see Carbon Tracker’s EU Utility Death Spiral). Companies have since
recognised that they are entering the low-carbon market 10 years too late.
Challenging demand assumptions
In spite of recent examples of low-carbon shifts, current energy industry scenarios
still suffer from ‘straight-line syndrome’ – an approach where fossil fuel demand
continues to grow at an unerring pace. This inevitably leads to outputs that present
harmonious, incremental shifts in energy, while eliminating the possibility of foreseeing
step-changes. This approach runs the risk of energy industry participants overlooking
influential changes in supply side inputs, such as technology cost reductions, and
demand side fundamentals, such as efficiency gains. Recent shifts in energy markets
have also shown that the loss of 10% market share for a technology can be enough to
have a significant financial impact, rather than entire sectoral overhauls. (see Carbon
Tracker’s US Coal Crash.) Moreover, in the case of value destruction for EU utilities or
the US coal mining sector, these inflection points occurred well within 10 years, not the
long, foreseeable time frames often purported by the fossil fuel industry.
Focusing on solar PV and EVs
This report models the impact on fossil fuel demand from applying the latest available
data and market projections for future cost reductions in solar PV and EVs. Global
climate policy effort and energy demand are also varied across this study’s scenarios to
explore their role in impacting on future fossil fuel demand. Consequently, this study
reveals the level of CO2 emissions and climate change mitigation that can result from
credible, up-to-date modelling assumptions in just a few sectors of the energy system.
In doing so, this analysis also highlights the scope for even greater decarbonisation of
the global energy system if technological innovation in sectors and industries outside
the scope of this study results in cutting emissions.