The latest estimates of how worldwide energy use will explode over the next 20 years demonstrate the unprecedented level of global cooperation that will be necessary to avert a climate crisis.
If the world continues with business as usual, and nations don't strengthen their policies to cut greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide emissions will rise by nearly 40 percent to 40.4 billion metric tons a year by 2030, according to the 2009 International Energy Outlook released yesterday by the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
The vast majority of that increase will come from developing nations. The EIA estimates that:
A tenth of the increase in CO2 emissions – an additional 1 billion tons a year by 2030, rising from 13.6 billion tons in 2006 to 14.6 billion – will come from the world's developed countries.
The lion's share – an additional 10 billion tons a year by 2030, a jump from 15.4 billion to 25.8 billion – will come from the world's developing nations. By 2030, developing countries' CO2 emissions will exceed those of developed countries by 77 percent.
To put the brakes on this train, negotiators working toward a global climate treaty at Copenhagen are going to have to find ways for more technologically advanced countries to help their still developing neighbors shift away from fossil fuels to cleaner energy.
The technology exists to clean up the world's energy supply. A report out this week from the International Energy Agency, Greenpeace and the European Solar Thermal Electricity Association suggests that concentrating solar power plants built in the desert could meet 25 percent of the world's power needs by 2050.
The problem is that most renewable energy is more expensive than fossil fuels. Price has generally kept renewable energy at a competitive disadvantage, except where government programs have encouraged, mandated or subsidized its use. And with the exception of hydro power and wind, the EIA doesn't see that changing much over the next 20 years under the current laws and practices.
Keep in mind that the EIA's baseline outlook takes into account only the current efforts to support clean energy technologies, such as existing subsidies, green economic stimulus packages and laws setting minimum renewable electricity production standards. It doesn't factor in future boosts, such as the $467 million in U.S. stimulus funding that President Obama announced yesterday for developing geothermal and solar energy projects.
Still, right now, the world is on track for a huge increase in greenhouse gas emissions, according to the EIA estimates. The emissions drop-off seen with the economic downturn won't last, the EIA says, and in the next one to two years, most of the world's economies will recover and their energy consumption growth will pick up where it left off.
Globally, the EIA sees energy use to jumping 44 percent by 2030.
Leading scientists know that to avoid catastrophic climate change, those emissions levels are going to have to drop; the IPCC says by at least 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.
The EIA's estimates for emissions increases from the world's developing nations are based on expectations for strong economic growth and an anticipation that developing countries will continue to rely heavily on fossil fuels, particularly coal. A full 90 percent of the global increase in coal use will likely be in the developing countries of Asia, the study says:
"In fact, much of [Asia's] increase in energy demand is expected to be met by coal, particularly in the electric power and industrial sectors. For example, installed coal-fired generating capacity in China is projected to nearly triple from 2006 to 2030, and coal use in China's industrial sector grows by nearly 60 percent."
Fossil fuel prices are expected to rise, however, and the EIA sees that contributing to faster growth of renewable energy than other power sources, with installed capacity increasing by nearly 3 percent a year.
By 2030, the EIA expects renewable energy to make up at least 21 percent of global electricity production, led by hydro power (54 percent of the total) and wind power (33 percent).
Among developed countries, where hydro power has already been widely developed, the report suggests that wind and biomass will have the greatest growth potential among renewables. In developing countries, the EIA expects more mid- to large-scale hydroelectric plants to come online in China, India, Brazil and across Southeast Asia.
Future climate policies requiring lower emissions or greater use of renewable energy could still change the world's greenhouse gas trajectory and increase the percentage of renewable energy. The study notes that, with rising fossil fuel prices and concerns about climate change and energy security, there are signs that change could be coming:
"Natural gas and coal are the second and third fastest-growing energy sources for electricity generation in the projection; however, the outlook for coal, in particular, could be altered substantially by any future legislation that would reduce or limit the growth of greenhouse gas emissions."
The world's major emitters have been discussing ways to help poorer countries adapt to climate change, including the possibility of a $100 billion a year "green fund" that could help developing nations shift to cleaner technology, but they have yet to work out a final agreement.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, meanwhile, has been urging action from all nations, warning that the impact of climate change is accelerating at an "alarming" pace.
"What is frightening is that the scientists are now reviewing their predictions, recognizing that climate change impact is accelerating at a much faster pace," Ban said yesterday.
"This is very serious and alarming. That is why I have been urging that if we take any action, we must take action now regardless of where you are coming from. Rich and poor countries, we must address this issue together."