The low-carbon technologies to mitigate climate change are available, but they are not being developed fast enough to limit its potentially devastating effects.
Climate change is with us. Towards the end of the last century it was largely conjecture, subject to speculation and examination. Endless deliberations by scientists heralded much foot-dragging by politicians around the globe. Now the truth is there for all to see with melting Arctic Ice, lethal storms, floods and fatal heat waves.The international community began to accept that something needed to be done to combat the consequences of climate change back in 1992 at the Earth Summit. The first tentative effort at mitigation was the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which eventually lurched into action in 2005, albeit without the cooperation of Australia and the United States of America. Most believe that, though it will deliver modest emission reductions from OECD nations, much more is needed.
“Models project substantial warming in temperature extremes by the end of the 21st century,” Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, says. “It is virtually certain that increases in the frequency and magnitude of warm daily temperature extremes and decreases in cold extremes will occur in the 21st century on the global scale. It is very likely that the length, frequency and intensity of warm spells, or heat waves, will increase over most land areas.
“Based on specific emissions scenarios, a one-in-20-year hottest day is likely to become a one-in-two-year event by the end of the 21st century in most regions. It is also likely that the frequency of heavy precipitation or the proportion of total rainfall from heavy falls will increase in the 21st century over many areas of the globe. At the same time droughts will intensify in the 21st century in some seasons and areas due to reduced precipitation and increased evapotranspiration.”
The challenge is to limit the temperature rise to a manageable 2°C. The ability to achieve this target is slipping away unless drastic action is taken over the coming decade, a sentiment echoed by a recent report by the International Energy Agency (IEA). In its annual Energy Technology Perspectives (ETP) it says that a host of new technologies is ready to transform the energy system, offering the potential to reduce carbon emissions drastically, enhance energy security and generate a huge investment return. But it goes on to warn that, despite some recent progress in deploying renewable energy, most clean-energy technologies are not on track to make their required contribution to reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and thereby provide a more secure energy system.
“While our efforts to bring about a clean energy transformation are falling further behind, I want to stress the golden opportunity before us: if significant policy action is taken, we can still achieve the huge potential for these technologies to reduce CO2 emissions and boost energy security,” said IEA executive director Maria van der Hoeven. “Now that we have identified the solution and the host of related benefits, and with the window of opportunity closing fast, when will governments wake up to the dangers of complacency and adopt the bold policies that radically transform our energy system? To do anything less is to deny our societies the welfare they deserve,” she said.
ETP 2012 presents a 2°C scenario, which lists the energy technology choices that can ensure an 80 per cent chance of limiting long-term global temperature increase to 2°C.
“It is a critical time for the world energy system, because midway through 2012 the energy challenges are clear, energy demand and prices are rising steeply, energy related CO2 emissions have reached record highs and energy security is at the forefront of the world’s political agenda,” van der Hoeven adds. “The political landscape is changing; the evidence of climate change if anything has got stronger, but it has fallen further down the political agenda. “The bad news is that the world is failing to tap energy’s potential technologies to create a clean energy future. It’s there and we are not using it. But the good news is that we can turn clean, affordable renewable energy from aspirational to become a reality by fully tapping the technology’s potential. The pathway to sustainability is to limit the rise in temperature to 2°C. To give us an 80 per cent chance of reaching this reduced level of CO2 emissions must be cut down by more than half between 2009 and 2050.”
The Institution of Engineering and Technology has long advocated that a diverse range of electricity generation is required. “Over the coming years a balanced portfolio of energy generation will be required,” Simon Harrison, chair of the IET energy policy panel says. “That will include all the renewables - wind, solar and to a lesser extent marine - as well as nuclear energy. In the short term there will be a reliance on fossil fuels, particularly gas.
“However we strongly believe that a greater emphasis needs to be placed on increasing energy efficiency. There are technologies available to achieve this but it is also a matter of changing people’s behaviour. We need to educate people on energy use and its consequences; it is a real battle of hearts and minds.”
Smart energy system
The most important recommendation in ETP 2012 is that a sustainable energy system needs to be smarter, more unified and more integrated than the present system. “To put it simply, today’s system, which is essentially fossil based, is centralised and one-directional,” Bo Diczfalusy, director of sustainable policy and technology, IEA, explains. “The system that we envisage for 2050 is multi-directional and more decentralised. It will be more complex as lots of individual technologies would need to work in harmony; technologies cannot be installed in isolation but working together in systems. This means that policies need to be developed that address the system rather than individual technologies.
“Despite being more complicated this system offers tremendous benefits. This system is efficient as it makes use of waste energy, renewable resources as well as having fewer CO2 emissions and finally brings us greater energy security.”
But the damning verdict from the report is that we are a long way away from achieving that. “Under current policies energy-related CO2 emissions would increase by one-third by 2020 and almost double by 2050,” van der Hoeven says. “Our failure to realise the full potential of clean energy technology and tapping energy efficiency is alarming. The progress in rolling our clean technology has been too slow and piecemeal. Investment in fossil-fuel technologies continues to outpace investment in clean energy alternatives and too little is being spent on clean energy technology. The share of publically funding R&D and energy research has fallen by two-thirds since 1980 and yet there is still time to achieve a low-carbon energy system, one that is likely to enhance energy security.”
In this financially constrained world it is hard to see how governments can invest the trillions of dollars required to deliver this clean-energy future but van der Hoeven argues it makes excellent financial sense. “Investing in the transition to a clean-energy future will pay off,” she says. “We need to turn this clean-energy future from an aspiration to a reality.”
The first step she says is to ensure that energy prices reflect the true cost of energy. That in essence means pricing carbon and abolishing fossil-fuel subsidies, which are almost seven times higher than the support for renewables, thus levelling the playing field for clean energy technology. Government needs to unlock the tremendous potential of energy efficiency.
Diczfalusy divides his focus into four distinct categories - electricity, CCS, transportation and renewables. Growing global population and increased wealth in the developing nations is expected to result in a doubling of electricity use between now and 2050. “The bad news here is that electricity generation is still largely based on fossil fuels,” Diczfalusy says.
“The second piece of bad news is that the electricity market grew very, very quickly over the past decade so that we had the addition of 4,000TWh between 2000 and 2009, which corresponds roughly to one-third of global electricity production. The majority of this growth is fossil fuel-based - predominantly coal-based in non OECD countries such as China and gas based in Europe and North America.
“What we would like to see up until 2050 is very different; we hope that by the end of the period we will see a very large deployment of renewables, more than half of the total.”
CCS is seen as one of the areas that has the greatest potential to reduce carbon emissions, but it is also one of the technologies that is making the slowest progress. Contrary to what many people think, CCS is not only about electricity generation, but it is also an important technology for industry. “The bad news here is that at present there are no large-scale CCS plans in electricity generation or industry,” Diczfalusy says. “This is very worrying and has to be addressed by political means. If we were to abandon CCS as an option it would raise the cost of other technologies in the system.”
As for the transportation sector it is the main reason that the use of oil is at such a high level. Until 2030 petrol- or diesel-powered vehicles will still form the dominant part of the car fleet throughout the world; after that time we will see electric vehicles begin to take over, boosted by ambitious government policies. “By 2020 government plans for sales of electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles to be running at seven million a year, but the plans of manufacturers are lagging well behind this, planning on sales of just over one million,” Diczfalusy says. “It is therefore important for governments not only to set up ambitious goals but to implement ambitious policies to make this happen.”
Finally, the building sector, which Diczfalusy explains plays a very important role in reducing emissions and combating climate change. To meet the targets buildings must reduce their emissions by over 60 per cent by 2050. This will require investments of over $11tn. This is very ambitious but even with that investment the problem would be that about half the current building stock would be still standing by 2050. Governments need to enforce more stringent building codes, apply minimum standards for equipment and appliances, but also to enforce compliance.
The ultimate aim of the carbon-emission reduction programme is to achieve the holy grail of a zero-carbon world. If the energy and technology trajectories in ETP report through 2050 are extended to 2075, a zero carbon-emissions energy system appears within range, but is not quite achieved. Development of additional breakthrough technologies in key areas will help increase the likelihood of meeting this very long-term target.
“A zero-carbon world by 2075 would be possible, but the pre-requisite would be that we are on the path where we need [that] to be by 2050,” Diczfalusy says. “Apart for the fact that it is very difficult to foresee technology development more than 50 years in the future we can see some challenges. One is the integration of very large amounts of a variable renewable electricity generation; this would require a lot of new technology and have serious policy implications as well.” *