Guest Article #53

The Global Energy Assessment – Guiding the Next Energy Transformation

As world leaders gather in Cancun for the COP16 climate meeting, the subject of energy – its use, production, distribution and sustainability – should be high on their agenda. The reality is that we cannot address many of the challenges of the 21st Century such as energy security, poverty alleviation, and climate change with the energy systems that we have today.

The climate negotiators could take a major step forward by agreeing that a fundamental transformation of the energy system is urgently needed, recognizing the multiple co-benefits that would ensue for the environment, economy and society. The discussion then could shift to questions of how to implement such a transformation within the short and medium term in a way that is acceptable and achievable.

The world has witnessed many energy systems transformations, from pre-industrial times to today's fossil fuel-based economies. All of these transformations have been profound and have changed the way people live and the way goods are produced and consumed. Each of them has taken place relatively easy and rapidly, and most were driven by the emergence of new, cheaper, more efficient and more copious sources of energy.

Today, we are in urgent need of a different kind of transformation that must be driven by a new set of imperatives – the need for clean, efficient, secure forms of energy that for the most part will be more expensive and difficult to introduce, at least in the short and perhaps in the medium term. This transformation involves a complex and integrated mixture of social change, technological innovation, major economic investment, and in some cases major policy reform.

To provide policy makers with the insights they need for this transition, the United Nations Foundation has supported the development of the Global Energy Assessment – a comprehensive, ambitious, multi-year initiative that is providing glimpses of how the next energy transformation – or, more correctly, energy revolution – may come to pass.

The Global Energy Assessment has involved some 500 analysts, authors, and reviewers from academia, industry, and government – in developing countries as well as developed. Its primary objective is to provide scientifically based, up-to-date analysis that can underpin practical options for decision makers in the public and private sectors to address energy access, security, and sustainability imperatives while tackling climate change.

To achieve the 2oC limit in temperature rise needed to prevent dangerous climate change, deep cuts will be needed in emissions over the next several decades, a feat that will require dramatically scaling up the use of zero-carbon energy technologies. The Global Energy Assessment estimates the cost of these sustainable energy investments at approximately US$1.5 to 2 trillion per annum to 2050, of which 5 to 40% would be incremental, offset in large part by co-benefits in energy access, security, pollution, human health, and climate objectives.

As an example of these benefits, the costs of pollution control are reduced significantly as the stringency of climate policy increases and the utilization of zero-carbon, pollution-free technologies rises. In fact, the most stringent climate scenarios examined by the Global Energy Assessment result in cost reductions of more than 80% in pollution control.

An integrated policy approach that combines stringent air pollution controls with policies on energy efficiency, climate change and energy access could also increase health benefits 50% compared to controls on air pollution alone.

Today, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), 1.4 billion people have no access to electricity and twice that number lack access to clean fuel for cooking or heating. The Global Energy Assessment estimates that providing universal energy access by 2030 would cost an additional US$70 billion annually between now and then – less than 10% of current energy investments globally. Meeting such a target would be an engine of economic empowerment and would save many lives now lost to diseases caused by breathing smoke from dirty stoves and kerosene lamps – and could be accomplished without a substantial impact on the global climate if efficiencies and clean technologies are widely adopted.

For example, significant cuts in emissions are possible through efficiencies in the buildings sector, which accounts for about one third of global energy demand. Present and foreseen technologies can reduce energy consumption of new appliances, computers and other electric equipment in buildings by up to 65% of current use by 2020.

The Global Energy Assessment outlines a number of Transition Pathways to 2050 that envisage different combinations of energy resources, technologies and policy options – each showing how to achieve major energy objectives simultaneously and at what cost. Collectively, they provide a framework to identify policies and measures to drive the next energy transformation. Particular emphasis is given to the identification of trade-offs, integrated solutions and “win-win” strategies.

A core finding is that with the right mix of technologies, policies and management the next energy transformation can address poverty, development, sustainability and climate change objectives in a cost-effective and sustainable way. The unmet challenge is how to engage with governments and communities around the world to realize this potential and bring about change with urgency.