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Thursday, November 13, 2008

IEA Report Confirms Clean and Cheap Energy Needed to Power Global Development

Cross-posted from the Breakthrough Institute

The stark tone of the International Energy Agency's World Energy Outlook 2008 is a dramatic departure from their normally staid and frequently rosy projections about the world's energy future (I presented highlights from the piece in this proceeding post). The report's opening statement that current world energy trends are "patently unsustainable" will no doubt receive the most attention in headlines across the blogosphere and mainstream news. But in this post, I want to delve deeper into the key statement that follows it:

"It is not an exaggeration to claim that the future of human prosperity depends on how successfully we tackle the two central energy challenges facing us today: securing the supply of reliable and affordable energy; and effecting a rapid transformation to low-carbon, efficient and environmentally benign system of energy supply."
While the environmental community focuses primarily on the latter of those two concerns, the IEA appropriately recognizes that the future of human prosperity depends on our ability to tackle both challenges: decarbonizing the energy supply and providing ample and affordable energy supplies to power global development.

In short, the IEA confirms what is perhaps the central challenge of the 21st century: developing clean and affordable energy sources to power the globe.

If we fail to tackle both challenges simultaneously - say by focusing only on expanding supplies of cheap fossil fuels; or by developing clean but costly new energy alternatives - we will consistently fall into what I call the Development Trap: we'll be forced to either sacrifice our climate and ecological security in the name of global development or condemn billions of global citizens to energy poverty and a permanently lower standard of living in the name of climate protection.

As the report lays bare, the battle for climate stability will center principally on the developing world. In the IEA's reference scenario (a frozen policy base case), developing nations (non-OECD countires) are responsible for 97% of projected emissions growth in and all of the projected increase in oil demand by 2030. Three quarters of projected emissions growth will occur in China, India and the Middle East alone (see IEA graph below).


This dangerous projected emissions growth is primarily the byproduct of rapid economic development, as these nations strive to bring billions of citizens a standard of living even approximating those enjoyed in the United States and other developed nations - an effort we can hardly begrudge or vilify. And yet, the projected emissions growth from non-OECD nations alone will swamp any efforts in the developed world to slash greenhouse gas emissions and are enough to dash any hopes of global climate stability.

This is the Development Trap, and the only way to break out of it is to develop clean, affordable and massively scalable energy sources that can power sustainable development in these nations.

If the battle for climate stability centers on the developing world, China is the main front.
This graph from the IEA report illustrates the central role China's robust energy consumption growth will play in the future of global energy dynamics. This graph might as well be titled, "As Goes China, So Goes the World."


Coal is expected to meet over half of China's expected energy growth, a fact that simply must change if the world's climate stability goals are to be achieved. So what will fill the void?

Officials in China, India and other developing nations have consistently made it clear that they will not sacrifice their economic development efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions, making it clear which side of the Development Trap they'll fall if forced.

These clear messages from developing nations and the stark picture of business-as-usual painted by the IEA should send a clear message to the participants at the upcoming Convention of the Parties (COP) to the Kyoto Protocol in Pozan, Poland, and the critical November 2009 talks in Copenhagen: you must focus explicitly on international cooperation to develop and rapidly deploy clean and affordable energy sources.

While agreements about emissions reduction targets are important, they will be little more than symbolic unless the COP negotiations also yield significant commitments to investment in clean energy research, development and demonstration and establish provisions for rapid technology diffusion and deployment.

Those four D's - clean energy Development, Demonstration, Diffusion and Deployment should be the central focus of the COP negotiations. There's simply no other way out of the Development Trap.


jorleh said...

What about the potential energy of the Greenland and Antarctic ice masses?

Generate electricity for all the world for thousands of years. And water to ship to dry areas.

Anonymous said...

Good summary, Jesse,
I'm actually psyched about the report's conclusion that oil supply will be tough to grow beyond 2012. High oil prices in 2008 have helped us lower US carbon emissions ~2.5% this year (based on US EIA data in their Short Term Energy Outlook). I post some details at
Here's hoping we can keep the emissions falling in 2009 and beyond.
Onwards to sustainability,