You know you're in for a bout of grim reading when the international agency charged with worrying about how we power the planet starts off its fact sheet with a question like this: "Why is our current energy pathway unsustainable?"
That's the message from the International Energy Agency, which issued its World Energy Outlook report, the organization's annual examination of the big picture. That picture itself hasn't changed all that much. The fundamental challenge is still to meet surging worldwide demand for energy while at the same time coming up with ways to avoid global warming and keep energy relatively affordable.
Basically, the IEA says everything depends on whether or not world leaders get serious about climate change, very soon.
If we do nothing, then worldwide energy demand is projected to soar by 40 percent by 2030. The vast majority of that increase is going to come in the developing world, as people in China, India and throughout Asia see their standard of living rise. Even keeping up with that demand would require investing another $26 trillion. And unless things change, most of that energy is going to come from fossil fuels, which means "dire consequences for climate change" and air pollution, the IEA said.
On the other hand, if world leaders committed to fighting climate change with cap-and-trade policies, increased energy efficiency, and greater use of renewable energy, that would cost another $10.5 trillion (on top of the $26 trillion). But energy demand growth could be cut in half, and greenhouse gases would decline.
Not that the prospects for this look particularly good right now. Most observers say hopes for a real deal out of next month's Copenhagen climate conference are fading, one major reason being that the United States still hasn't figured out what it wants to do. There's a chance the Obama administration will put something in place on its own even if Congress doesn't act, but in any case, it's unlikely a deal with be struck without American leadership.
Chances are you've never heard of the IEA. While the agency has enormous influence among policymakers, and while there are bitter disputes over its estimates, it barely registers with the public. But despite the IEA's wonky tone and elite audience, the report has one great strength when it comes to getting the public involved: it focuses on choices and alternatives.
The world has decisions to make about energy. Everything we've learned about how people get engaged in making policy decisions shows that choices are essential. Nothing's perfect, and there are always tradeoffs to everything. Setting those options out fairly to the public is critical to building public support for change.
The IEA actually lays out the cost of those alternatives for policymakers. We can only hope that policymakers will turn around and do the same for the public.
Friday, November 13, 2009
Energy and the Environment
A good collection of data and analyses on environmental policy is at Public Agenda. And note this also, posted handily right below, and follow the links. Grim, indeed. Oh, and you might as well look at Pew's Center on Global Climate Change and these two CRS reports on energy policy. (Add in Rushefsky, Chapter 6, and that's what the week look like for you POL 1105 folks. As I said, Grim.) [UPDATE: For a good primer on the state of the science of global climate change, see this Brief. And here's the IPCC Report. And this meta-analysis of the published research.]