Sunday, February 2, 2014

Fossil fuels, energy use, climate change and new technologies

World will still rely on fossil fuels this century - New technologies desperately needed to halt climate change impact

Climate change is seen by many scientists as the biggest environmental threat of our time, the one that could result in not just major environmental, but also major economic and social catastrophe if nothing is done to prevent the further increase in carbon emissions. However, as long as fossil fuels such as coal and oil remain dominant source of global energy consumption the emissions are likely to rise, adding more impact to our climate and putting the lives of our future generation in jeopardy.

There is a group of scientists who believe that the future availability of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology will be major factor in reaching ambitious climate targets, and preventing the worst possible climate change scenario.

The brand new comprehensive study of future energy technologies from IIASA, the Potsdam Institute for Climate Change, the Stanford Energy Modeling Forum which is published in a special issue of the journal Climatic Change deals with this issue.  The researchers have provided a major research project combining 18 different global energy-economy models from research teams around the world.

What makes this study special is the fact that it examines the role of technology in future climate mitigation, studying different technologies to decide which one will be needed and when in order to reach different climate targets, and prevent.

The reference year for this study was 2010, and in this year fossil fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas) supplied more than 80% of the world's total primary energy supply.

It has been estimated that the global demand for energy will likely increase by 2 to 3 times by 2100. The world clearly needs more clean energy if it really wants to mitigate the adverse effect of climate change but this cannot be achieved without the new policies to cut greenhouse gas emissions. What this means is that without political will and new policies fossil fuels will remain the major energy source in 2100, which will of course result in further increases in greenhouse gas emissions.

So the world desperately needs new policies to tackle climate change. But where should policymakers focus their efforts, which technology should be a primary option and which one holds the most promise to be succesfuly used against climate change?

The researchers believe that there are some technologies are more valuable than others, and as an example they point out that the CCS and bioenergy technologies are not more valuable compared to wind, solar, and nuclear energy, because the combination of the two can lead to negative emissions, which would only would allow us to compensate for short term delays in tackling climate change by later taking carbon out of the atmosphere.

CCS technology, despite getting plenty of talk is is a yet-unproven technology that has the potential to remove carbon from fossil fuel or bioenergy combustion and store it underground. If we combine CCS with bioenergy it results in carbon dioxide removal from the atmosphere, the term that is frequently referred to as "negative emissions".

The major questions related to CSS technology are still the same, namely whether and when it will become available for practical purposes, and how quickly it could be deployed and with what costs.

The researchers argue that the future availability of bioenergy and CCS technologies would certainly help take some pressure off other sectors, in terms of required mitigation effort. They point out that „unless stringent mitigation action in transport and other end-use sectors is implemented almost immediately, the only way to still achieve the 2 degrees of Celsius target will be to rely on carbon dioxide removal technologies such as the combination of bioenergy with CCS."

Bioenergy is sometimes ignored when talking about the best possible energy solutions to tackle climate change impact but this is in fact an especially valuable energy resource because, unlike other renewable energy sources (solar, wind, and hydropower), it can be converted into liquid and gaseous fuels which are afterwards easily storable and can be readily used by current transportation systems. The other renewable technologies would require electric or hydrogen vehicles and infrastructure in order to power transportation and thus cannot be used by currently dominant transportation system.

The electrification of the transport system would free up limited, and therefore valuable, supplies of biomass across the globe by reducing the need for biofuels. The researchers believe that freeing up of biomass is one of the key system-wide consequences of electrifying transport after which available biomass could be used for various purposes and by various industries, for example, in plastics manufacturing or steel production, which are otherwise very challenging in terms of decarbonization.

The aditional interesting conclusion from this study was that fossil fuels won't disappear by the end of this century. Some scientists have argued that there's an upper limit to how much climate change impact will actually happen by the end of this century simply because the world will run out of available coal, oil, and gas supplies by the year 2100. However, this latest study shows that fossil resource constraints are unlikely to limit greenhouse gas emissions in this century.


It's no doubt that world will stay dependent on fossil fuels for foreseeable future, even despite the massive growth in renewable energy use. What this means is that scientists will have to develop technology that would allow cleaner use of fossil fuels. Renewable energy sector still isn't strong enough to dominate global energy market, and this is the reason why researchers need to make better use of technologies such as CSS.

The right kind of technology has to not only reduce the total amount of harmful greenhouse gas emissions, it also needs to be cost-effective, and there hasn't been that much proposed technological solutions that are both effective as well as economically viable.

On the negative note, climate change isn't exactly leaving us with plenty time to fully develop this technologies meaning that science will have to act rapidly in order to avoid the worst possible climate change scenario, if of course currently dominant climate change predictions are right.

New technological solutions are perhaps are only way to mitigate climate change and make this world safe for our future generations.

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