Executive summary of Energy [R]evolution: A Sustainable USA Energy Outlook

Page - July 13, 2010
The threat of climate change, caused by rising global temperatures, is the most significant environmental challenge facing the world at the beginning of the 21st century. It has major implications for the world's social and economic stability, its natural resources, and, in particular, the way we produce our energy.

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The Copenhagen Accord, a political declaration agreed to by many key countries at the climate change summit in December 2009, has the stated aim of keeping the increase in global temperatures to below 2°C, and then considering a 1.5°C limit by 2015. However, the national emissions reduction pledges submitted by various countries to the United Nations coordinating body, the UNFCCC, in the first half of 2010 are likely to lead to a world with global emissions of between 47.9 and 53.6 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalents per year by 2020. This is about 10–20% higher than today's levels. In the worst case, the Copenhagen Accord pledges could even permit emission allowances to exceed a 'business as usual' projection.

In order to avoid the most catastrophic impacts of climate change, the global temperature increase must be kept as far below 2°C as possible. This is still possible, but time is running out. To stay within this limit, global greenhouse gas emissions will need to peak by 2015 and decline rapidly after that, reaching as close to zero as possible by the middle of the 21st century.

Safe level of warming

Keeping the global temperature increase to 2°C is often referred to as a 'safe level' of warming, but this does not reflect the reality of the latest science. This shows that a warming of 2°C above pre-industrial levels would pose unacceptable risks to many of the world's key natural and human systems. Even with a 1.5°C warming, increases in drought, heat waves and floods, along with other adverse impacts such as increased water stress for up to 1.7 billion people, wildfire frequency and flood risks, are projected in many regions. Neither does staying below 2°C rule out large scale disasters such as melting ice sheets. Partial de-glaciation of the Greenland ice sheet, and possibly the West Antarctic ice sheet, could even occur from additional warming within a range of 0.8 – 3.8°C above current levels.3 If rising temperatures are to be kept within acceptable limits then we need to significantly reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. This makes both environmental and economic sense. The main greenhouse gas is carbon dioxide (CO2) produced by using fossil fuels for energy and transport.

Climate change and security of supply

Spurred by recent rapidly fluctuating oil prices, the issue of security of supply – both in terms of access to supplies and financial stability - is now at the top of the energy policy agenda. One reason for these price fluctuations is the fact that supplies of all proven resources of fossil fuels – oil, gas and coal – are becoming scarcer and more expensive to produce. So-called 'non-conventional' resources such as shale oil have even in some cases become economic, with devastating consequences for the local environment. What is certain is that the days of 'cheap oil' are coming to an end. Uranium, the fuel for nuclear power , is also a finite resource. By contrast, the reserves of renewable energy that are technically accessible globally are large enough to provide about six times more power than the world currently consumes - forever .

Renewable energy technologies vary widely in their technical and economic maturity, but there are a range of sources which offer increasingly attractive options. These include wind, biomass, photovoltaics, solar thermal, geothermal, ocean and hydroelectric power . Their common feature is that they produce little or no greenhouse gases, and rely on virtually inexhaustible natural elements for their 'fuel'. Some of these technologies are already competitive. The wind power industry, for example, continued its explosive growth in the face of a global recession and a financial crisis in 2008 and 2009 and is a testament to the inherent attractiveness of renewable technology.

Last year (2009) Bloomberg New Energy Finance reported the total level of annual investment in clean energy as $145 billion, only a 6.5% drop from the record previous year . The global wind industry defied the economic downturn and saw its annual market grow by 41.5% over 2008, and total global wind power capacity increase by 31.7% to 158 GW at the end of 2009.More grid-connected solar PV capacity was added worldwide than in the boom year of 2008. And the economics of renewables will further improve as they develop technically, as the price of fossil fuels continues to rise and as their saving of carbon dioxide emissions is given a monetary value.

At the same time there is enormous potential for reducing our consumption of energy, and still continuing to provide the same level of energy services. This study details a series of energy efficiency measures which together can substantially reduce demand across industry, homes, business and services.

The Energy [R]evolution

The threat of climate change demands nothing short of an Energy Revolution--a transformation that has already started, as renewable energy markets exhibit huge and steady growth. In the first global edition of the Energy [R]evolution, published in January 2007, we projected a global installed renewable capacity of 156 GW by 2010. At the end of 2009, 158 GW has been installed. More needs to be done, however. At the core of this revolution will be a change in the way that energy is produced, distributed and consumed.

The five key principles behind this shift will be to:

  • Implement renewable solutions, especially through decentralized energy systems
  • Respect the natural limits of the environment
  • Phase out dirty, unsustainable energy sources
  • Create greater equity in the use of resources
  • Decouple economic growth from the consumption of fossil fuels

Decentralized energy systems, where power and heat are produced close to the point of final use, will avoid the current waste of energy during conversion and distribution. Investments in 'climate infrastructure' such as smart interactive grids, as well as super grids to transport large quantities of offshore wind and concentrating solar power , are essential. Building up clusters of renewable micro grids, especially for people living in remote areas, will be a central tool in providing sustainable electricity to the almost two billion people around the world for whom access to electricity is presently denied.

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