Energy and climate change

Options Magazine, Winter 2010: 

One of the three global problem areas IIASA will focus on this decade

Many of the global challenges that confront us today are the result of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and air pollution caused by the continuing use of fossil and other “dirty” fuels. At the regional scale, anthropogenic emissions of GHGs and other radiatively active substances, such as sulfur aerosols and particulate matter, result from energy production, processing, conversion, transport, and end use—all of them key drivers of economic development. At the local scale, with half the world’s population lacking access to affordable modern energy services for cooking and more than a quarter without access to electricity, indoor air pollution from the burning of traditional fuels like biomass are a major cause of ill health, particularly in women and children. Clearly, improving human wellbeing across the board without endangering the natural environment will require a careful balancing act to simultaneously take account of both economic and social development needs.

Tackling climate change in conjunction with energy systems is an important entry point for addressing this global problem area. Keeping the global mean temperature change below 2ºC above pre-industrial levels will require a peak to be reached in greenhouse gas emissions immediately and a decline toward zero emissions in the second half of the century. The later this occurs, the more so-called “net-negative” emissions will be needed toward the end of the century, which require the deployment of technologies that, for example, capture and store carbon from sustainable energy biomass. Hand in hand with these transformative changes, the decarbonization of energy systems, from global to place-specific levels, must become an accepted development goal, while major global initiatives must be undertaken to achieve universal clean energy access during the next decades.

As the world becomes more connected and dependencies increase, further integration of energy systems is needed to help reduce risks to the security of both energy supply and end use, for instance, smart grids that combine centralized and decentralized systems with increasing storage of energy through to end use (e.g., hybrid or electric vehicles). It is estimated that the global private and public energy R&D efforts, which have fallen sharply since the early 1980s, need to increase threefold while the investments should at least double to achieve these goals. Strong governance and institutional support are also needed for implementation, as are new institutional architectures and business models oriented toward the delivery of clean energy services.

The response to these major challenges requires fundamental transformational changes in the energy systems and their integration with strategies for other adaptations to climate change and globalization. During 2011–2015 IIASA’s new Energy and Climate Change research area will examine these related issues in four ways:

The recognized need to transform to a global low-carbon (green) energy system within the next two decades is the first research theme. Temperature stabilization at 2ºC above the preindustrial level, as laid down in the 2010 Copenhagen Accord, and subsequently concurred with by 100+ countries, will guard against catastrophic climate change. Reduction of the carbon intensity of economic activities over the next two decades, and vigorous increases in energy services to promote human development and wellbeing, will support the climate goals. Improvements to energy efficiency would take care of almost half of emissions and energy reductions in the future, and important options such as renewables, fossils fuels + carbon capture and storage, and nuclear energy, would make a significant contribution to reducing the rest. For the first time since the 1980s, energy investment is currently declining, which offers a very real opportunity to stimulate “greener” and more sustainable energy investment. IIASA’s role here will be to more closely integrate and extend its existing modeling tools, principally MESSAGE and GAINS, to infer the best and most cost-effective decarbonization options, as well as pinpoint those that have the greatest benefits in human, environmental, and financial/investment terms. The policies required to best implement these options will also be thoroughly examined.

The second main research theme involves reframing and revitalizing the greenhouse gas reduction debate. Current international climate policy discussions regarding greenhouse gas emission reductions do not reflect the domestic framing of many countries, where mitigation measures are perceived to be in direct conflict with other policy objectives. Multiple policy priorities will be assessed within an integrated framework using a basket of modeling techniques to help identify synergies and tradeoffs among, for example, climate change, energy access, pollution, energy security and other local development goals, thus providing multiple benefits across all these dimensions and accommodating the views of all parties. Policies that would result in quantifiable improvements to current non-climate related policy priorities, while making positive contributions to mitigation of, and adaptation to, long-term climate change include: resource-efficient production systems, increased energy security and access, improved approaches to coping with extreme events, including the co-benefits for these of pollution control, and ultimately the extension of this work to cover a wider range of aspects important for human welfare.

The third theme covers investment in energy and R&D on the supply and demand side, both of which are in need of trillions of dollars of new investment because of aging infrastructure or locked-in technologies. Two generic groups of energy-technology RD&D (Research, Development and Deployment) efforts and investments will be assessed by IIASA. The first is energy efficiency and conservation improvements; the second is the deployment of alternative technologies and systems. These issues are, of course, many and multifaceted. IIASA will consider both issues in the context of accelerating technological change and transformational breakthroughs. The analyses will concentrate on investment decisions in the renewable energy sector and include a combination of modeling approaches combined with an empirical evaluation of the diverse stakeholders’ perceptions, objectives, and strategies.

The fourth theme of IIASA’s new Energy and Climate Change research area will be improvement of resource use efficiency and its potential for GHG mitigation through alternative consumer choices and technological efficiency improvements—an area that is not yet well understood. For instance, in many energy and climate change models, energy demand options are aggregated in ways that do not always enlighten the policymaker. IIASA will look at which policy instruments could change consumer behavior and promote technological efficiency improvements so as to reduce overall resource consumption and GHG emissions without compromising human welfare and wellbeing. Collaborative research involving expertise from IIASA programs in all areas will be undertaken to extend the current modeling tools developed at IIASA to more thoroughly analyze and understand this important sector.

IIASA’s approach to researching the four themes has the following underlying aims:

The first is the sheer breadth of scientific expertise at IIASA that can be called upon where research areas overlap. This applies not only inside the Energy and Climate Change research area itself, but to interactions with and feedbacks from other research areas (food and water, poverty and equity) and drivers of global transformations (population and technology). The lesson of nearly 40 years of applied systems analysis is that everything in our world is interconnected and that no one research area can or should be  viewed in isolation.

The second aim is to build on our considerable in-house modeling capability to enhance methodological depth and breadth and also to use creative integrated solutions to advance research into understanding the problems and finding solutions to them—not only that, but also discovering why and how “solutions” may fail.

The third aim is to ensure that all our research is focused, disciplined, and aimed at applied solutions in the real world. This will involve gaining a more direct knowledge of policymakers’ needs, the choices they need to make now, and their best options for the future to promote human and environmental wellbeing. The deepening of knowledge of the policy community and the particular political and practical issues they face is also an important aim of the overall IIASA research area.

The Global Energy Assessment (GEA) demonstrates the success of the above approach by bringing together around 350 energy analysts from around the world, building on IIASA’s and others’ modeling expertise, and making significant contributions to ongoing political processes and debates. Indeed, the GEA, which is hosted by IIASA, will help pave the way for many of the aforementioned research themes via its scientific assessment to be published in 2011 at the Vienna Energy Conference.


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Last edited: 11 August 2012

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