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Strong leadership, investment needed to bring sustainable energy to all

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Written by Tom Gill

Thursday, 14 June 2012 00:00

Energy-for-all-slide
True energy access, the report argues, means not just for households, but for industry, transport and more. Photo © Corbis Images

A new SEI report shows achieving UN energy goals within a 2°C pathway will require a massive scale-up of low-carbon technologies, driven by a shared development agenda and strong, effective policies. World leaders can lay the groundwork at Rio+20.

The report, Energy for a Shared Development Agenda, combines a global assessment of energy scenarios up to 2050, case studies of energy access and low-carbon efforts around the world, and a review of the technological shifts, investments, policies and governance structures needed to bring energy to all.

The report explores two alternate scenarios: basic energy access (BEA), to meet household needs for lighting, heat and cooking, and shared development agenda (SDA), which examines the implications for energy systems if all nations achieve per capita annual incomes of at least $10,000 USD (at 2005 purchasing power parity rates).

Developing nations are already expanding energy access on their own, and the report shows that if current trends continue, global energy demand would rise from 365 exajoules (EJ) in 2010 to 775 EJ by 2050, with South Asia as the biggest consumer. Global CO2 emissions would rise to 64% above 1990 levels by 2020 and to 152% above 1990 levels by 2050, making it near-certain that temperatures will increase by more than 2°C.

“If we don’t pursue a shared development agenda, countries will continue on a development path based on fossil-fuels,” says Måns Nilsson, SEI deputy director and lead author of the report.

Shifting towards sustainability
In the BEA scenario, energy demand dramatically decreases due to concerted efforts to improve energy efficiency and sharply reduce the energy intensity of economies. Primary energy use continues to rise until 2020, peaking at 575 EJ but declining to 441 EJ by 2050. Global CO2 emissions increase by 38% in 2020 relative to 1990, but by 2050 decrease by 92% on 1990 levels.

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BIOMASS PLANT, INDIA / FLICKR-OUR PLANET

In the SDA scenario, energy demand rises sharply across much of Africa, and to a lesser extent, in South Asia. Yet global energy demand is only 33.5 EJ (11%) higher in 2050 than in the BEA scenario, partly due to sharper reductions in U.S. and Canadian energy use, but with no major changes elsewhere. Carbon emissions are virtually the same as under BEA.

The authors’ verdict: Sustainable energy access for all is attainable, but only if nations work together to transform global energy systems.

“Sustainable energy is not a question of North versus South,” says Nilsson. “Enhancing our energy systems is a truly shared development agenda that goes to the core of our social and economic development aspirations. Sustainable energy needs to be centrally placed in the Rio deliberations.”

Small steps are not enough
The scale of the necessary transformation is considerable. For example, as much as 8,900 GW of wind energy would be required globally by 2050, which would require building, on average, 248 GW of capacity per year between 2015 and 2050 – 25 times the rate in recent years.

Incremental changes are simply not enough, the authors stress, nor is this simply a technological challenge. Governance at all levels must be strengthened and improved, and effective policies must be adopted to guide public- and private-sector investment.

“Effective assessment frameworks, as well as monitoring and evaluation systems and mechanisms for transparency and accountability, are needed to ensure that strategies are coherent with overall development goals,” says Åsa Persson, a research fellow at SEI and lead author of the report’s governance analysis.

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SOLAR INSTALLATION IN THAILAND / ADB PHOTO

The authors also argue that energy objectives and targets need a stronger home within the UN system, and suggest using the Sustainable Development Goals being discussed at Rio+20 to create it. In addition, they call for a massive scale-up of public and private investment in renewable capacity, energy access and energy efficiency; cuts to fossil-fuel subsidies; and greater public support for R&D to bring down the cost of key technologies and improve implementation.

A major collaboration
SEI assembled a partnership of leading international research institutions and think tanks to produce the report: the African Climate Policy Centre (ACPC), the Brazilian Foundation for Sustainable Development (FBDS), the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (COPPE), the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (PBL), The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) and the World Resources Institute (WRI).

The scenarios in the report were produced by Charlie Heaps, Director of SEI’s U.S. Centre, with the LEAP (Long range Energy Alternatives Planning) software he developed. The LEAP system has been used by governments, academics, NGOs, companies and energy utilities in more than 190 countries for energy policy analysis and climate change mitigation assessment.

“This is one of the first global energy assessments to be entirely open-source,” says Heaps. “We hope that others will build on our work to continue to explore these important issues.”

 

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