How will we power the world sustainably in 2050?

New forms of green energy will help keep fossil fuels in the ground by mid-century, analysts predict.

Fusion is the power source of the stars, and maybe one day, our lives.

What will it take to reach net zero in both energy production and consumption by 2050? (Ben Shannon/CBC)

What if we could draw energy just from the vibrations of people walking on a subway platform? Or harness the tides?

What if we could even use the same process the sun has to create emissions-free energy?

All these are possible. The trick is to make them part of a vast mosaic of green sources of power that will hopefully provide electricity and fuel to most of the world by the year 2050.

Most experts predict that wind and solar energy will provide much more energy than they do today.

"The rate at which they're growing, if you zoom in, is well beyond the rate of growth of any previous technology, be it coal, gas or nuclear," said Paul Drummond, Senior Research Associate at University College London's Bartlett School of Environment, Energy and Resources.

Paul Drummond (UCL)

"Right now the world is pretty reliant on coal-fuelled power, and we need to try to transition from coal and gas, to mainly solar and wind— both onshore and offshore. But to transition to that, we also need to transition the demand side of the economy," he told Spark host Nora Young.

That means electrifying many of the things we have always powered with fossil fuels. So cars, trucks, our furnaces, stoves and even airplanes and ships.

The biggest challenge, he said, will be converting heavy industry, like steel production, away from carbon-emitting power sources to electric ones. And for those that cannot escape fossil fuels, then they must be able to recapture the carbon and sequester it back underground, he added.

Canada, like many countries around the world, has a goal to have an emission-free economy by 2050, said Binnu Jeyakumar, the director of clean energy at Calgary's Pembina Institute, which advocates for better energy choices.

Currently, she said, fossil fuels account for around 60 per cent of Canadian energy. She's optimistic that that number will have dropped dramatically over the next few decades, as more wind and solar energy sources come online. She cited electric cars, which now make up about five per cent of vehicles on the road. "But this is a hockey stick curve we're talking about. By 2050, most of our cars will be electric."

Using the power source of the stars

Fuelling the future will take an "all-hands-on-deck" approach to energy sources, said Troy Carter, a plasma physicist and director of the Plasma Science Technology Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Troy Carter (UCLA)

Carter is working on what might be the most ambitious, but potentially most dramatic, source of green energy available: nuclear fusion.

Unlike nuclear fission, where atoms are split and the resulting waste has to be stored where it can't leak out for fear of radiation, nuclear fusion creates almost no waste, and is more efficient.

That's because it copies the way stars create heat and energy, by fusing two hydrogen atoms to create helium, which is an inert gas. The catch is that it's incredibly difficult to achieve this, and requires specialized lasers and magnets powerful enough to overcome the natural repulsion between positively charged protons.

Right now, Carter said, it's taking more energy to create the reaction than the reaction itself creates. "Our magnetic cages and the laser schemes that we're using aren't perfect. They leak a little bit. You have to put enough energy in. It's like keeping your cup of coffee hot. If just put it on the counter. It's going to cool off." 

Scientists are developing new ways to keep the reaction "hot," and U.S. President Joe Biden has said he wants to make nuclear fusion a reality within the next decade.

"We have our work cut out for us, but I think we can do it."

Binnu Jayakumar (Pembina)

While Jeyakumar and Drummond are hopeful for fusion, they aren't ready to count on it just yet. But both are optimistic we can combine green energy sources to create fully emissions-free energy over the next several decades. 

This will be particularly important in the Global South, where there will be the opportunity to design cities from scratch and leap-frog over the fossil-fuel-powered era straight to solar and wind power, much like parts of Africa did, installing cell phone towers instead of expensive land-line networks.

It's going to take a change in personal attitudes towards work and lifestyle, but overall our lives won't change that dramatically, Drummond said.

It will, Jeyakumar added, just be quieter and cleaner. "And I think maybe, maybe you also have slightly less climate anxiety."

Written and produced by Adam Killick.