The best bits from the Global Energy Assessment

  • 10 Dec 2012, 15:00
  • Ros Donald

Changing the way people use energy will be key to mitigating greenhouse gas emissions and limiting temperature rise, according to a new report. The Global Energy Assessment (GEA) plots 40 energy pathways that could help achieve that goal. Carbon Brief picks out some of the best bits with one of the report's contributors.

The International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA)'s Global Energy Assessment (GEA) was launched just over a week ago. Over five years in the making, the print version is a five-kilogram doorstop - a testament, IIASA deputy director Nebojsa Nakicenovic told the audience, to the need for an integrated approach to solving the world's energy problems. IIASA is a scientific institute which aims to produce policy-relevant research on "problems that are too large or too complex to be solved by a single country or academic discipline" - like climate change. The creation of the GEA involved energy experts from a wide range of different backgrounds.

Dr. Volker Krey, who works at the institute and is a lead author on several Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports - including its coming fifth assessment - worked on the chapter outlining the different pathways. He explains:

"There are significant benefits of taking a more holistic approach rather than looking at the challenges surrounding energy one by one. The latter makes the effort of tackling each of the challenges appear large and the benefits small. A coordinated approach will in contrast not require much more effort than addressing these single issues, but the benefits will outweigh these efforts"

The report aims to show decision makers how they could achieve four objectives: stabilise global temperature rise at two degrees above pre-industrial levels, enhance energy security, eliminate air pollution and ensure universal access to "modern energy" by 2030. Working on these problems holistically, rather than one by one, could yield enormous benefits for the climate, it says.

The table below shows the objectives and how the authors believe they could be achieved:

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Pathways to two degrees

Just like the International Energy Agency's World Energy Outlook, GEA says time is of the essence - and that keeping below a two degree rise will require a huge and immediate shift in energy use patterns. It aims to demonstrate the many routes available to policymakers to achieve the goal.

The report says out of 60 possible pathways it modelled, 41 of them satisfy all of GEA's goals at the same time. To make it a bit easier to understand, GEA has grouped them into three illustrative scenarios, with different assumptions about decision makers' priorities on demand side efficiency. So there's Efficiency - with a big efficiency roll-out and much-reduced demand, Mix - with intermediate demand, and Supply - with high demand.

Under all three scenarios, emissions peak by 2020, dropping to "almost zero or negative in the long term", in order to keep temperature rise below two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levelsDevelopment of global emissions of carbon dioxide from energy and industrial sources to limit temperature change to below 2°C - with a success probability of more than 50 per cent.

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Source: Figure SPM-2, p.6, GEA Summary for policymakers.

IIASA has created a database for its pathways and how they could apply to different countries, which is accessible here.

Efficiency is key

The GEA demonstrates how the two degrees target could be achieved, using different mixes of energy efficiency and energy sources. The left hand side of the three figures below show how the illustrative scenarios develop up to 2050. The bar charts on the right show the energy mix in 2050 under all 60 pathways modelled.

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Development of the primary energy mix in the different pathways modelled. Source: Figure TS-24, p.74, GEA Summary for policymakers.  NB this was originally one figure, but it is too large to post as one.

The pathways that include a big roll-out of energy efficiency are far more likely to achieve the four objectives of stabilising global temperatures, enhancing energy security, eliminating air pollution and ensuring universal access to energy supplies. More energy efficiency also gives much more flexibility in terms of the energy mix that's needed. Governments could, for example, phase out unabated coal for electricity much more slowly under an efficiency scenario than they could with less efficiency.

Krey says:

"GEA suggests that it is not only cheaper to focus on energy efficiency as a main pillar of the transformation to a sustainable energy system, but also allows for choices to be made on the supply side and picking among the options available there."

This flexibility is especially important given public opposition to many supply side options like nuclear energy, carbon capture and storage, or increased infrastructure build to integrate renewables, Krey adds.

Politically feasible?

Nebojsa Nakicenovic, who directed the Global Energy Assessment project, says he hopes GEA will shift perceptions of how government policies can work in different way to cut emissions - shifting the focus onto reducing energy use as well as altering the energy mix. He says the assessment is also important to combat the idea that for developing countries to grow their economies and expand energy access, they have to do so using high-emission fuel sources like coal.

Critics might point to the fact that new research, from the United Nations Environment Programme, for example, suggests the world is very likely to overshoot the two degree limit. And since the report was launched the Doha talks have concluded with no definite commitments to emissions reductions.

Asked - before the conclusion of Doha - whether GEA is demanding the impossible, Krey says:

"Addressing the energy challenges will certainly require trend breaks and as the analysis has shown this can in principle be achieved. Whether this is politically feasible is of course an entirely different question, but stating from the very beginning that a transformation cannot be achieved because we always have been doing things in this way will obviously not help in making progress." 

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