Energy crisis and climate change

Soaring worldwide demand for energy is driving climate-altering greenhouse gas emissions dangerously higher, and even as investments grow in new “clean” energy sources, existing technologies to reduce energy use are being neglected.

Energy remains crucial to economic development in a world where over 1.6 billion people have no access to electricity. While the media and government focus has been on greener and cleaner ways to generate power through renewable sources like biofuels, wind, solar and hydrogen, experts say that major improvements in energy efficiency could dramatically reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, save money and provide the breathing space needed to improve and develop new energy sources.

Scientists estimate that to avoid dangerous climate change, world greenhouse gas emissions need to be reduced by about 60 per cent from today’s levels by 2050. At the same time, world energy demand is projected to increase by over 50 per cent between now and 2030, and that will raise energy-related carbon dioxide emissions 52 per cent higher than they are today, reported the International Energy Agency (IEA) in its 2005 World Energy Outlook. That energy path is unsustainable, warns the IEA, which is calling for major changes.

“The need to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions means a drastic overhaul of how we produce energy,” said Christopher Flavin, president of the Worldwatch Institute, a US environmental group. “We are facing the biggest economic transformation since the Industrial Revolution,” Flavin said. Alternative ways of generating energy with little or no carbon emissions, improvements in energy efficiency and using less energy overall will all be needed on a massive scale. That is beginning to happen in terms of wind, solar and biofuel energy, which are growing at double-digit rates and generate close to 10 per cent of the world’s energy, said Flavin. However, energy efficiency in North America and elsewhere has been on the back burner.

India, China and other countries are facing a different world as they develop, one with less oil and a need to reduce pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. “They know their development path will be different and could leapfrog ahead into adopting and creating new technologies,” Flavin said. During the energy crisis of the 1970s, the US and Canada developed strong energy efficiency programmes, but most of them have fallen into disuse, he said.

The Canadian government funded the development of a super energy-efficient home design in the 1970s called R-2000. But only a few thousand have ever been built because they cost about five per cent more. “If Canada had adopted R-2000 as the building standard for homes, we would be a much more energy efficient country,” Barg said. The US and Canadian governments have so far refused to mandate higher efficiency standards or establish national energy efficiency policies, as European countries have done. Humanity responds to short-term, urgent crises but often ignores long-term ones, Barg said.

“Politicians and the public don’t understand the urgency of the climate change problem,” he noted. “We are reaching a crisis globally with climate change. The key question is whether we will be able to respond in time.” — IPS