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CO2 cuts: the task is spelt out

GLOBAL warming is again high on the agenda of the leaders of the group of eight (G8) main industrialised countries, as they meet in Japan this month. And if they had any doubts about the obstacles that lie ahead, a report the commissioned from the International Energy Agency (IEA) will have dispelled them.

Leaders are expected to come under pressure from their Japanese hosts to set a target to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by 50% by 2050. Achieving this would require the marshalling of extensive technological resources at a very high cost – perhaps $45 trillion would be needed for the development of relevant infrastructure, the IEA says in its Energy Technology Perspectives 2008 report. Nobuo Tanaka, the executive director of the Paris-based agency, says a global energy revolution is "both necessary and achievable", but that it will be tough to execute.

The IEA says that if the world pursues only the policies in place to date in a business-as-usual situation, CO2 emissions would rise by 130% and oil demand would increase by 70% by 2050. Both figures are well above those that many scientists and analysts say would be acceptable. At the other end of the scale of options presented in the report, the IEA analyses what it would take to achieve a 50% cut in CO2 emissions by 2050 and concludes a radical change in the energy mix of industrialised countries must begin immediately.

To achieve that, the IEA says, "far greater energy efficiency is a core requirement. Renewables, nuclear power and carbon capture and storage (CCS) must be deployed on a massive scale and carbon-free transport developed." The participation of China, India and Brazil and other developing countries would be as important as that of their Western counterparts. The IEA says fewer than a third of business-as-usual global emissions in 2050 would come from OECD countries.

The amount of power derived from renewable energy sources would need to be quadrupled by 2050 if CO2 emissions were to be halved, bringing total renewable usage to 46% of total power generation. Meanwhile, nuclear generation would need to be increased sharply, as would the use of CCS to bring down CO2 emissions from hydrocarbons-fuelled power stations and industry.

These last two proposals drew criticism from environmental pressure groups such as Greenpeace, which see nuclear power as dangerous and CCS as an expensive and ineffective short-term fix to a long-term problem. But the IEA says all forms of CO2 reduction must be employed if even relatively modest CO2 reduction targets are to be met.

To achieve the 50% cut, on average around 55 fossil-fuelled power plants with CCS, 32 nuclear plants, 17,500 large wind turbines and 215m square metres of solar panels, among other developments, would need to be built across the globe every year until 2050, the IEA suggests. Also necessary would be widespread adoption of near-zero-emissions buildings and, in one possible situation, the introduction of nearly 1bn electric or hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles to the world's transport fleet to replace oil-powered vehicles.

The effects of such a shift in energy use on the oil industry look dramatic on paper – oil demand would fall by 27% compared with 2005. But the gradual run-down of easily extracted oil reserves over the period could prove as troublesome to the industry as any wider policy decisions.

Needless to say none of this comes cheap – a factor that may prove one of the larger stumbling blocks in realising such a radical change in energy use. The IEA reckons it could cost $45 trillion to achieve the 50% CO2 cut, which would represent just over 1% of average annual global GDP from now until 2050. Analysts note that this sort of spending over 40 years was not out of the question, as the dent in global GDP would probably be much smaller, given the jobs and business generated by such vast infrastructure projects. Such spending could also pale into insignificance against the costs of not taking sufficient action if global warming does its worst, they added. But the extent to which G8 nations and the fastest-growing developing nations would be prepared to co-operate to achieve this remains in question.


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