A massive transformation in society and technology is needed over the next two decades if the world is going to meet its energy needs sustainably – and it is up to governments to shape the agenda, starting at Rio+20, writes think-tank
If we truly believe that the poorest countries have the right to development, then we must realise that they need vastly expanded energy services: not just access to energy for basic tasks like cooking and heating, but enough energy for productive economic uses, to power industry and develop infrastructure. On top of this, the entire world needs to meet its energy needs sustainably if it is to stay within climate and resource constraints.
Such a challenge requires massive transformation of society and technologies within the next two decades. But it is a challenge we cannot shirk, and which it is still possible to meet. This week at Rio+20, we released a report that explores how. The report presents three scenarios: one in which the world continues on its current energy path, a second showing the implications of providing basic energy access to the developing world, and a third which envisages a shared development agenda in which poor countries get enough energy to support higher levels of development. The latter two scenarios also aim for a 60 per cent probability of limiting warming to 2°C.
The first major insight from this analysis – consistent with the latest data from the International Energy Agency – is that if we do nothing, energy use and carbon emissions will skyrocket. In 2011, the IEA says, CO2 emissions from fossil-fuel combustion rose by 6.1 per cent in non-Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development countries and dropped by 0.6 per cent within the OECD. Our baseline scenario shows global energy demand doubling, from 365 exajoules in 2010 to 775 exajoules in 2050. Two-thirds of that demand would come from developing nations. Global CO2 emissions would rise to 152 per cent above 1990 levels, near-guaranteeing that warming will exceed 2°C.
The only way to stop this trend is to find a more sustainable alternative that both rich and poor countries can support. That is the vision behind our shared development agenda scenario, which projects a future in which all regions have per capita incomes of at least $10,000 by 2050, in 2005 purchasing power parity terms. Under this scenario, energy demand rises sharply across much of Africa, and to a lesser extent in South Asia. This is offset by major reductions in demand in richer regions, for a total global demand of 475 exajoules in 2050.
To achieve these targets, the share of renewables for electricity generation needs to double by 2030 in most regions, and conventional fossil-fuel electric generation needs to be phased out by 2050. Energy intensities need to decline at a rate of 2.8 per cent per year, to only 32 per cent of their 2010 values by 2050. Such declines will require large investments in energy efficiency as well as some changes in lifestyles, especially in the richer regions. Many others have already called for similar efforts – from the United Nations, to the IEA, to individual governments, to think-tanks and business leaders. One good starting point could be the goals set out in the UN's Sustainable Energy for All framework – doubling renewables by 2030, doubling improvements in energy efficiency, and extending energy access.
But we need strong leadership and a shared commitment to meet these goals. We need effective policies and actions to force large-scale transformations of socio-technical systems on both the supply and demand side. We can begin by cutting subsidies for fossil fuel production, a measure for which there is growing public support. There is also a need for increased public investment in research and development for renewables and efficiency, and a massive scale-up of both public and private investments in renewable power capacity, basic energy access, and energy efficiency. World leaders can take important first steps at Rio+20. And in the coming decade, all governments must show the necessary commitment to set the agenda, shape public opinion and stake out a vision of where society is headed.Måns Nilsson is research director of the Stockholm Environment Institute, and Charlie Heaps is director of SEI's US Centre. They are also the authors of SEI's report Energy for a Shared Development Agenda: Scenarios and Governance Implications