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IEA: 'Energy Revolution' Could Cut Fossil Fuels Use, Emissions

The International Energy Agency (IEA) Friday called for an "energy revolution" worldwide to reduce the world's dependence on fossil fuels. To halve greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2050, at least $45 trillion -- three times the current size of the entire U.S. economy -- needs to be invested by governments and the private sector into the energy sector, the Paris-based agency said.

Assuming an average 3.3% global economic growth between 2010 and 2050, additional investments of $45 trillion in energy, or 1.1% of the world's gross domestic product, would be needed, the IEA reported.

"We are very far from sustainable development, despite the widespread recognition of the long-term problem," said IEA Executive Director Nobuo Tanaka. "In fact, CO2 [carbon dioxide] emissions growth has accelerated considerably in recent years. Higher oil and gas prices result in a rapid switch to coal. Moreover rapid growth in China and India, both coal-based economies, has also contributed to this deteriorating outlook."

Reducing emissions by 50% by 2050 "represents a formidable challenge, and we would require immediate policy action and technological transition on an unprecedented scale," Tanaka said.

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies, renewables, nuclear energy and energy efficiency were cited as playing "a much more important role" in the coming years. Among other things, IEA addressed the potential for electrification of end-use sectors in combination with CO2-free electricity, the need for further development of solar electricity, and the importance of second generation biodiesel.

"We need roadmaps that accelerate international technology development and implementation, but that leave room for flexible responses on a country level," said Tanaka.

A United Nations network of scientists in 2007 concluded that emissions need to be reduced by at least half by 2050 to keep world temperatures from rising 3.6-4.2 degrees Fahrenheit above levels measured before the 18th century. Temperature increases above those levels could trigger a widespread loss of habitat and lead to famines and droughts, the scientists said. At a meeting in Japan last month, environment ministers from the Group of Eight (G-8) industrialized countries and Russia backed the 50% target and called for it to be officially endorsed at the G-8 summit in July.

The IEA report is built around three sets of global energy technology scenarios: baseline (business-as-usual scenario), a range of scenarios showing how CO2 emissions could be brought back to 2005 levels by 2050, and a set of scenarios outlining how to cut in half 2005 levels by 2050. "Global roadmaps" show how each of 17 key advanced energy technologies would need to be developed and deployed to reduce emissions.

To halve 2005 emissions by 2050, IEA recommends a huge investment in energy technology development and deployment, a campaign to dramatically increase energy efficiency and a shift to renewable sources of energy.

"We would need a virtual decarbonization of the power sector," the report said.

On average, 35 coal-powered plants and 20 natural gas-powered power plants would have to be fitted with CCS equipment every year between 2010 and 2050 under the most stringent reduction plan. In addition, 32 new nuclear power plants would have to be constructed and 17,000 wind-power turbines would have to be added every year through 2050.

"This also implies numerous issues that would need to be overcome, such as the NIMBY-attitude (not in my backyard), the need to boost the numbers of engineering and technical graduates, and to resolve the questions on the availability of sufficient geological formations for captured CO2 or geologically stable sites for nuclear reactors or waste storage," the report stated.

To reduce oil demand to 27% of 2005 demand, nations worldwide would have to achieve an eight-fold reduction in carbon intensity -- the amount of carbon needed to produce a unit of energy -- in the transport sector, said the report. Failure to reduce the carbon intensity would double energy demand and CO2 emissions by 2050, said IEA.

Oil use worldwide is now on track to equal five times the current production in Saudi Arabia by 2050, said Tanaka. "Such growth of oil demand raises major concerns regarding energy supply access and investment need," he said.

"This development is clearly not sustainable," said IEA energy analyst Dolf Gielen, who led the project. About $27 trillion of the forecasted $45 trillion investment would be borne by developing countries, which are on track to be responsible for two-thirds of GHG by 2050, he noted.

Most of the new investments would be spent to commercialize energy technologies developed by governments and the private sector, said Gielen.

"If industry is convinced there will be policy for serious, deep CO2 emission cuts, then these investments will be made by the private sector," Gielen said.

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