Since before the Industrial Revolution, societies have relied on increasing supplies of energy to meet their need for goods and services (see figure “World Primary Energy Use”). Major changes in current trends are required if future energy systems are to be affordable, safe, secure, and environmentally sound. There is an urgent need for a sustained and comprehensive strategy to help resolve the following challenges:
Major transformations in energy systems are required to meet these challenges and to increase prosperity.
The Global Energy Assessment (GEA) assessed a broad range of resources, technologies, and policy options, and identified a number of “pathways” through which energy systems could be transformed to simultaneously address all of the above challenges. The key findings are presented on the following pages.
World Primary Energy Use: The figure shows the explosive growth of global primary energy with two clear development phases, the first characterized by a shift from reliance on traditional energy sources to coal and subsequently to oil and gas. Hydropower, biomass, and nuclear energy during the past decades have a combined share of almost 22%. New renewables such as solar and wind are hardly discernible in the figure. Biomass refers to traditional biomass until the most recent decades, when modern biomass became more prevalent and now accounts for one-quarter of biomass energy. Source: Grubler A et al. (2012). Chapter 1—Energy Primer. In: Global Energy Assessment—Toward a Sustainable Future, IIASA, Vienna, Austria and Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK and New York, NY, USA.
The GEA analysis demonstrates that a sustainable future requires a transformation from today’s energy systems to those with: (i) radical improvements in energy efficiency, especially in end use, and (ii) greater shares of renewable energies and advanced energy systems with carbon capture and storage (CCS) for both fossil fuels and biomass. The analysis ascertained that there are many ways to transform energy systems and many energy portfolio options. Large, early, and sustained investments, combined with supporting policies, are needed to implement and finance change. Many of the investment resources can be found through forward-thinking domestic and local policies and institutional mechanisms that can also support their effective delivery. Some investments are already being made in these options, and should be strengthened and widely applied through new and innovative mechanisms to create a major energy system transformation by 2050.
Long infrastructure lifetimes mean that it takes decades to change energy systems. Thus immediate action is needed to avoid lock-in of invested capital into energy systems and associated infrastructure that are not compatible with sustainability goals. For example, by 2050 almost three-quarters of the world population is projected to live in cities. The provision of services and livelihood opportunities to growing urban populations in the years to come presents a major opportunity for transforming energy systems and avoiding lock-in to energy supply and demand patterns that are counterproductive to sustainability goals.
Efficiency improvement is proving to be the most cost-effective, near-term option with multiple benefits, such as reducing adverse environmental and health impacts, alleviating poverty, enhancing energy security and flexibility in selecting energy supply options, and creating employment and economic opportunities. Research shows that required improvements in energy efficiency particularly in end use can be achieved quickly. For example:
A portfolio of strong, carefully targeted policies is needed to promote energy efficient technologies and address, inter alia, direct and indirect costs, benefits, and any rebound effects.
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Further information: The full Global Energy Assessment (GEA) report is published by Cambridge University Press (CUP) (www.cambridge.org) and is available online at www.globalenergyassessment.org. The Web site includes an interactive scenario database that documents the GEA pathways. The text and figures in this article are reproduced with the permission of CUP.
Last edited: 25 February 2014
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