Both Brazilian sugarcane farmers who turn excess to ethanol and Chinese city dwellers who enjoy hot tea thanks to solar water heaters don't realize it but they are at the forefront of what an international panel of scientists hopes the future will look like. The Amsterdam-based InterAcademy Council—a group that represents 150 national scientific and engineering academies—released a report this week detailing how countries can shift from burning coal and other greenhouse-gas emitting fuels to cleaner energy while also introducing modern forms of energy to the billions worldwide who rely on charcoal, firewood or even dung as their fuel.
Some "1.6 billion people don't have access to electricity," notes physicist and Nobel laureate Steven Chu, director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California and co-chair of the panel that wrote the report, commissioned by the governments of China and Brazil. "The energy problem means different things to different people."
In the developed world, "conservation and energy efficiency will remain for the next several decades the most important thing the world can do to get on a sustainable energy path," he adds. Developing countries, such as China and Brazil, need "to leapfrog well past what we did in the West, like in the U.S., where we have sprawling suburbia and long commutes."
The report—"Lighting the Way: Toward a Sustainable Energy Future"—addresses the challenge of bringing modern energy to everyone, while reining in global emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Currently, according to the International Energy Agency, the world is on a path to a 40 percent increase in oil-burning alone by 2030 that will lead to a concomitant rise in CO2 emissions of 55 percent.
As it stands, fossil fuels, primarily coal and oil, supply around 80 percent of the world's energy needs, and known reserves of coal alone could power the world at current consumption levels for several centuries. But burning such fuels accounts for more than eight billion metric tons of CO2 entering the atmosphere yearly.
The report calls for a massive investment—doubling the current worldwide energy research and development budget of roughly $9 billion—as well as implementation during the next decade of improved energy efficiency, carbon capture and storage technology, and deployment of renewable energy sources. "Energy conservation would be a first priority—through transportation, lifestyle and also building," says panel member Li Jinghai, vice president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
But the "cornerstone" of any sustainable energy future, according to panel member Ged Davis, co-president of global energy assessment at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, will be carbon capture and storage. "We still are a long ways from any sense of commerciality," he says.
In order to get technologies, such as integrated gasification and combined cycle coal power plants with carbon capture and storage, into the economic mainstream, a carbon price is needed. The panel estimates the necessary price would be $100 to $150 per metric ton of carbon, or $27 to $41 per metric ton of CO2. "We are now doing a little bit [of carbon capture and storage], but it's mostly at the level of enhanced oil recovery, several million tons per year," Chu says. "If this is going to be a significant part of controlling carbon emissions, it would have to be on the scale of one [billion] to 10 billion tons per year."
In the meantime, the choices that developing nations make will largely determine whether energy use and carbon emissions continue to rise or begin to level off. The panel hopes that such countries can leapfrog the development path of industrialized nations by installing more efficient and cleaner infrastructure. "Developing countries don't have to follow the path of industrialized countries that led us into this nightmare," says José Goldemberg, co-chair of the panel and former secretary of state for the environment for the state of São Paulo in Brazil. "They can jump right ahead and use modern technology, like cell phones," which have largely stood in for fixed telephone lines in developing nations.
That has not been the case with the coal-fired power plants that China is building at a rate of one a week. Brazil, on the other hand, has managed to provide 40 percent of its transportation fuel from sugarcane-derived ethanol and helped develop the flex-fuel technology that now allows drivers in the U.S. to switch between gasoline and the biofuel. General Motors's division in China has developed more fuel-efficient cars that could be exported back to the company's headquarters nation. And advances in materials technology, such as hybrid ceramic / steel, can help boost the temperature—and therefore increase the efficiency and lower the amount of CO2 emissions—of new coal-fired power plants.
Plus, renewables such as wind and solar power can play an ever-increasing role, if not in traditional forms of power generation. "In many small cities they also use solar energy for their cooking, heating and also for bathing," Liu says. "Not mass solar power but mostly it is distributed solar energy that is more available and more cost-effective for households."
Such technology and management improvements—as well as a price on carbon—can help drive an energy transformation and deliver some hope of arresting the ever-increasing levels of CO2 in the atmosphere, according to the panel. "The quicker we learn," Davis says, "the cheaper it will be."