Why We Need Renewables: Low-Impact, Renewable Sources of Energy Are Our Only Long-Term Hope

By Rowlands, Ian H. | Alternatives Journal, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

Why We Need Renewables: Low-Impact, Renewable Sources of Energy Are Our Only Long-Term Hope


Rowlands, Ian H., Alternatives Journal


WITH THE Kyoto Protocol's target dates lying between 2008 and 2012, most climate change discussions focus on the coming decade. The preferred solutions are those, such as energy efficiency, that can deliver the targeted greenhouse gas emission reductions over the next few years at the least cost.

But energy efficiency gains will only take us so far. Singular focus upon the Kyoto Protocol's reduction targets fails to recognize that much greater emission reductions are actually required if we want to achieve the goal of the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC)--"stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system."

In fact, some scientists estimate that emission reductions of the order of 60 to 80 percent may be required if that goal is to be met. The Kyoto Protocol, in contrast, calls for approximately five percent reductions from 1990 levels for industralized countries as a whole and no limits upon global emissions.

Albeit a good starting point for taking action on climate change, the Kyoto Protocol demands only limited changes to what remains a carbon-based economy and society.

Imagine that a firm or a country is growing in economic terms at three percent a year. It is also improving its "carbon efficiency"--its economic output per unit of carbon dioxide released--by four percent a year. If we take our example from the year 2000, we see that carbon emissions will have declined 9.2 percent by 2010, even though economic output has grown by 34 percent. This is, of course, to be applauded. It even looks like this firm or country could be on track to reach the most ambitious national target set in Kyoto--that is, an eight-percent reduction from 1990 levels by 2012.

A different assessment arises, however, when a target of 80 percent is identified. Given the same trajectory, one might think that an almost ten-percent reduction in ten years would bode well for achieving the FCCC goal. The fact is, this 80-percent reduction would not be achieved until the year 2167.

Indeed, it takes a 700-fold increase in carbon efficiency to reduce emissions by 80 percent because of an associated 139-fold increase in output during the same period. Efficiency gains will clearly not achieve the FCCC goal. They may also make eventual achievement of larger reductions much more difficult, since improvements in the efficiency of the existing system can serve to further lock-in the structure of that system.

Other strategies must be part of the portfolio of responses to the challenge of global climate change. …

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