World leaders are failing to come to grips with the implications of rapidly rising energy consumption for climate change, climate experts said at last week’s Breakthrough Dialogue.
“If everyone in the world were to consume energy at Germany’s highly efficient levels,” explained Roger Pielke, Jr., an environmental studies professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, “global energy consumption would need to triple or quadruple. How do we provide the energy equivalent of adding 800 Virginias while meeting climate goals?”
The percentage of energy the world gets from zero-carbon sources has been flat for 20 years, Pielke, Jr. noted. “In 2014, 13 percent of the world’s energy came from carbon-free sources — mainly hydro and nuclear,” said Pielke, Jr. “That 13 percent hasn’t changed in 20 years. If you want to actual stabilize carbon dioxide – then that 13 percent needs to be above 90 percent.”
Achieving the target of atmospheric concentrations of 450 parts per million while meeting business-as-usual energy demand requires one gigawatt — the size of one nuclear reactor — of zero-carbon new energy every day.
“That reality is uncomfortable and challenging,” Pielke, Jr., said, “but we are moving toward high-energy planet very fast.”
Joyashree Roy, professor of economics at Jadavpur University in India, said while efficiency gains are to be encouraged, energy demand is growing faster in developing economies like India. In Calcutta, for instance, total energy use is expected to grow by 62 percent by 2025.
To put that energy demand in context, Roy pointed out that in India, only 60 out of the 365 days in a year are considered “workable” based on World Health Organization standards. Out of several adaptation solutions, the only one that could improve the workers’ productivity was providing air conditioning. Currently, only 10 percent of work places are air-conditioned, and that percentage is expected to grow rapidly.
“Let’s speak the truth,” said Roy. “High energy consumption is inevitable.”
Jesse Ausubel of The Rockfeller University cautioned against thinking that the rise of the rest means energy consumption at levels exceeding that of the West. While energy consumption will continue to grow, “later adopters” such as China and India will consume at lower levels because they build leaner, more efficient systems.
In the United States, the absolute use of over many materials, including steel, paper, water, have peaked. The rate of growth for US electricity is also declining, according to Ausubel. Right now, India and China have rapidly increased energy consumption, much like the United States did in the 20th century, but because they are later adopters, their use of energy can also be expected to decline.
“We have to be cautious about what we mean by a high-energy planet,” said Ausubel. “We could very well have a high-energy services planet without using large amounts of materials like petroleum.”
Whether projections for long-term rising or declining energy consumption, David Keith, a professor at Harvard University, said that nothing is inevitable. “I think we are extraordinarily bad at making predictions,” he said.
Our track record for making accurate predictions is “indeed terrible,” said Roger Pielke, Jr., but added that, no matter how uncomfortable, we ought to work toward the world we want to make. Energy access is currently not part of the Millennium Development Goals, for instance.
Pielke, Jr. also argued that the twin challenge of expanding modern energy services and mitigating climate change necessitates a frank discussion of taboo technologies like nuclear, CCS, and geoengineering as well as adaptation measures.
“I would rather spend more time shaping our energy future rather than predicting it,” said Peilke, Jr.
David Keith noted that rising overall consumption will have large environmental impacts above and beyond climate.
“I agree we need to move toward 90 percent zero-carbon energy, and I also think that we should avoid becoming carbon monomaniacs and understand there are lots of other environmental consequences and impacts that come from energy use,” he said. “If we are carbon monomaniacs we might not take seriously other impacts of changing the way we make energy, like land use.”
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