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Energy Options and Paths to Climate Stabilization

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Session Description: 

Overview & Relevance:
One of the greatest challenges of the 21st century is to find environmentally acceptable ways of promoting sustainable economic growth and development, both in industrialized and developing countries. From an energy perspective, this means finding ways to improve the economic utility of the energy we consume and finding ways to produce energy that will greatly reduce the risk of adverse environmental consequences.

Our present development trajectory risks generating severe global climate change, a wave of extinctions leading to reduced biodiversity, and other serious environmental problems. Many of these potential problems are of concern primarily on the timescale of decades to centuries and involve protection of a global commons. In contrast, market forces respond most strongly to short-term private interests. Hence, there is a role for government investment in developing and improving ways of producing and using power that can be commercialized and brought to market by the private sector. If we are successful, this investment can lead to an era of sustained economic growth and development that is cognizant of and consistent with our finite world.

There is a need to identify promising technologies that can facilitate sustained environmentally acceptable economic growth. Even among experts, there is no consensus regarding which technologies and approaches are most promising. Each technology or approach has its own set of barriers to widespread adoption. These barriers may include technological hurdles, physical limitations, economic, social or political factors, national security concerns, and so on. We considered these limitations and barriers, and assessed candidate technologies for their ability to contribute to the development of a vigorous and just global economy operating in a healthy global environment. Furthermore, the session was designed to identify critical research and development issues including a rationale for the sequencing of technology development, demonstration and deployment that must be addressed to assess or facilitate the viability of these options.

Human civilization has reached the point where we no longer play a minor role in the natural cycles that govern our planet. We must move beyond thinking in terms of trade-offs between our economy and the natural world — there is one physical world encompassing both of these things, impinging on us at every instant. We have the opportunity to try to make this physical world as good as it can be for the long haul — this is our opportunity and our challenge. It is our good fortune to be able to address these most important problems at this turning point in the history of human civilization, and our responsibility to find solutions that work.

The goal of the meeting was to identify promising energy technologies and strategies that can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, physical limitations and barriers to development for each technology, and most important next steps – a sequencing of research and development initiatives – that would help lead each technology towards testing in the marketplace.

The meeting addressed these issues primarily from a physical sciences and engineering perspective. However, we recognized that engineering solutions are tools for society, and thus must be consistent with a plausible development path that take into consideration economic, social, political, and national security concerns. Furthermore, whereas the meeting involved primarily the discussion of technologies and focus on addressing global climate change, these discussions included the participation of environmental scientists who may be able to foresee some of the as-yet unanticipated consequences of widespread adoption of a new energy strategy.

This interdisciplinary AGCI session focused on long–term energy technologies and associated pathways that can contribute to the stabilization of radiative forcing resulting from human activity. The session was organized around three themes with an emphasis on technologies and the quantitative contributions they each can make in significantly altering the last two terms of the Kaya Identity – where carbon dioxide emissions are expressed as the product of population, per capita gross domestic product, primary energy intensity, and carbon intensity.

I. Closing the Loop on Carbon & Other GHGs
II. Increasing Reliance on Efficiency, Renewables, Nuclear, and Bio Energy
III. Beyond the Standard Suite

Quantitative analysis of specific technologies and energy systems designs was presented that included nuclear fission & fusion, space and terrestrial based renewables, bio-energy, carbon management/fossil energy, and efficiency. Related topics were also discussed including energy carriers/storage, conversion technologies, and other greenhouse gases. Quantities were expressed in common currencies such as TW saved or produced (terrawatt = 10^12 W), or GtC-equivalent emissions avoided, so as to enhance comparison of potential paths and their contribution at the global scale. Attempts were made to identify technologies and approaches that can be deployed on the massive scale needed to support robust economic growth while stabilizing radiative forcing.

"For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled."
–Richard P. Feynman

Workshop Topic (s): 
  • Carbon Cycle
  • Climate Variability and Change (including Climate Modeling)
  • Human Contributions & Responses
  • Land-Use/Land-Cover Change