By Welter Benicio
Image: Welter Benicio

A report from IPCC issued in 2013 indicate a range for the variation of the global average temperature until year 2100: from 0.4 oC, in the best case, to 4.8 oC . The expected values in the future are related to the intensity of the emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG). However difficult to determine this variation and irrespective of what’s achieved in the long term, increases in the average temperature should be avoided to the extent possible as they are the causer of unpredictable changes in the climate of the different regions of the globe. Global warming can raise the level of the seas, alter the precipitations and other climate parameters and change the landscapes, impacting the biological systems and, as a consequence, the economy and lives of peoples of these regions.

In order to mitigate warming and its consequences, anthropogenic emissions of GHG must be reduced, slowing the rise of the concentration of these gases in the atmosphere. The concentration of carbon dioxide (CO), for example, has grown from ca. 280 ppm in the pre-industrial era to ca. 380 ppm in 2005 and is projected to grow further in the foreseeable future. How fast, will depend on the measures adopted to curb emissions. It is a consensus though that slowing down, or ideally eliminating, the continuous rise of GHG concentration requires the reduction of the intensity of the utilization of fossil fuels as a primary source of energy, compared to other energy sources. In other words, it is necessary that the participation of the fossil fuels in the global energy matrix that reached a peak of ca. 80% last century declines further and faster. The complete elimination of this source of energy, although desirable, is impracticable and IEA projects that oil, gas and coal would still represent ca. 75% in the global matrix by 2040.

In a global economy intensive in energy, reducing the utilization of fossil fuels is not feasible without the contribution of other sources of energy, preferably of the ones that are renewable, safe, reliable and low in emissions, such as wind, solar, tidal, geothermic and, hopefully, nuclear fusion. Measures to intensify the participation of these alternative sources in the matrix could be combined with measures to reduce the intensity of the utilization of energy in our societies through gains of efficiency. In other words: do more with less energy and less carbon.

Although difficult to implement on a global scale, the following measures could be adopted with the aim of speeding up the transition from fossil fuels to alternative sources. The measures are feasible and depend only on the will of free societies and their governments:

  1. First and foremost, it is necessary that the hidden costs derived from the utilization of fossil fuels are determined. These estimates should be incumbent on serious institutions of recognized reputation. The results will show the true costs of these energy sources (oil, gas & coal) and will improve the economics of alternative sources when compared to them;
  2. It is also necessary that the hidden costs become notorious. The more publicity given to them, in a simple and comprehensive way, the better;
  3. The world is eager for cheap energy. The IEA 2014 Energy Outlook Report cites that 620 million people in sub-Saharan Africa do not have access to electricity. Therefore, increasing the cost of energy by adding carbon tax or by reducing the subsidies to the fossil fuels would impact more the poorest regions of the globe. However, the recent decline in the prices of oil and gas makes the adoption of taxes to compensate for oil & gas (and even coal) externalities feasible;
  4. The same IEA Report reckons that $550 billion were spent as subsides to fossil fuels in 2013, whereas $120 billion were spent to promote renewable energy technologies in the same year. The low prices represent a good opportunity to reverse the balance of subsides, directing more money to the improvement of the technologies and economics of alternative sources of energy;
  5. If it’s appropriate that carbon be taxed, it’s also recommended that alternative sources of energy be incentivized. The green power industry could receive tax incentives, but the tax on properties that invest on distributed power generation for example could also be adopted;
  6. Distributed power generation must be incentivized, particularly photovoltaic in houses and buildings and cogeneration, as they can dispense with large sums to be invested on transmission assets. Excess power from the units must be injected in the grids, reducing the fluctuations in the demand, improving their reliability and mitigating the most expensive peak times;
  7. If power generation is to be more and more distributed, the grids must become more intelligent to allow the consumer to contract the source of energy of choice, the easy trade of excess local generation, the reduction of losses and flattening of peak periods. Investments on automation and intelligence of the grids are therefore key moving forward;
  8. The regional integration of power grids can contribute to the efficiency, reliability and cost reduction. Investments on new thermal power plants could, for example, become unnecessary if the needed supply can come from a renewable source elsewhere;
  9. The cheapest way to obtain a watt-hour is by investing in efficiency, i.e. by eliminating losses that abound in the conversion, transmission and distribution of energy. Although cheap compared to greenfield projects, there are challenges to overcome in order to increase the appetite for investments in the efficiency of existing assets, particularly in the area of project financing. The fact is that compared to greenfield projects, energy efficiency is still overlooked globally;
  10. Transport sector consumes between 20% and 25% of the energy produced globally (IEA), so the need for efficiency applies to it as much as it applies to the power and industrial sectors. A huge step toward the reduction of emissions would be the complete replacement of combustion engine vehicles by electric units. Since this feat is not going to be achieved soon, ever more restricting targets related to performance and emissions must be set for the automobile industry and their combustion engine models. Other measures are the intensified use of biofuels and improved efficiency in all types of engines used in road transportation and aviation;
  11. Fossil fuels will be here for long haul, that’s for sure. It means that carbon sequestration from the atmosphere and storage in safe reservoirs must be intensified;
  12. “Ceteris paribus” (all variables maintained constant), there are still ways of reducing emissions by educating the populations in sustainable measures.

Emissions and their nasty consequences do not happen only in the combustion of fossil fuels. Damages occur in the entire lifecycle of these energy sources, from their exploration through their utilization at the end of their long chain. This is one more reason to have the measures that accelerate their replacement by clean alternative sources adopted or intensified. The generations to come will be thankful.