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Life is but a continuous process of energy conversion and transformation. The accomplishments of civilization have largely been achieved through the increasingly efficient and extensive harnessing of various forms of energy to extend human capabilities and ingenuity. Energy is similarly indispensable for continued human development and economic growth. Providing adequate, affordable energy is a necessary (even if by itself insufficient) prerequisite for eradicating poverty, improving human welfare, and raising living standards worldwide. Without economic growth, it will also be difficult to address social and environmental challenges, especially those associated with poverty. Without continued institutional, social, and technological innovation, it will be impossible to address planetary challenges such as climate change. Energy extraction, conversion, and use always generate undesirable by-products and emissions – at a minimum in the form of dissipated heat. Energy cannot be created or destroyed – it can only be converted from one form to another, along a one-way street from higher to lower grades (qualities) of energy. Although it is common to discuss energy “consumption,” energy is actually transformed rather than consumed.
This Energy Primer 1 aims at a basic-level introduction to fundamental concepts and data that help to understand energy systems holistically and to provide a common conceptual and terminological framework before examining in greater detail the various aspects of energy systems from challenges and options to integrated solutions, as done in the different chapters of the Global Energy Assessment (GEA).
Chapter 17 explores possible transformational pathways of the future global energy system with the overarching aim of assessing the technological feasibility as well as the economic implications of meeting a range of sustainability objectives simultaneously. As such, it aims at the integration across objectives, and thus goes beyond earlier assessments of the future energy system that have mostly focused on either specific topics or single objectives. Specifically, the chapter assesses technical measures, policies, and related costs and benefits for meeting the objectives that were identified in Chapters 2 to 6, including:
providing almost universal access to affordable clean cooking and electricity for the poor;
limiting air pollution and health damages from energy use;
improving energy security throughout the world; and
limiting climate change.
The assessment of future energy pathways in this chapter shows that it is technically possible to achieve improved energy access, air quality, and energy security simultaneously while avoiding dangerous climate change. In fact, a number of alternative combinations of resources, technologies, and policies are found capable of attaining these objectives. From a large ensemble of possible transformations, three distinct groups of pathways (GEA-Supply, GEA-Mix, and GEA-Efficiency) have been identified and analyzed. Within each group, one pathway has been selected as “illustrative” in order to represent alternative evolutions of the energy system toward sustainable development. The pathway groups, together with the illustrative cases, depict salient branching points for policy implementation and highlight different degrees of freedom and different routes to the sustainability objectives.
A quarter of humanity today lives without access to any electricity and almost one-half still depends on solid fuels such as unprocessed biomass, coal, or charcoal for its thermal needs. These people continue to suffer a multitude of impacts detrimental to their welfare. Most live in rural villages and urban slums in developing nations. Access to affordable modern energy carriers is a necessary, but insufficient step toward alleviating poverty and enabling the expansion of local economies.
Even among populations with physical access to electricity and modern fuels, a lack of affordability and reliable supplies limits the extent to which a transition to using these can occur. Those who can afford the improved energy carriers may still not be able to afford the upfront costs of connections or the conversion technology or equipment that makes that energy useful.
Beyond the obvious uses of energy for lighting, cooking, heating, and basic home appliances, uses for purposes that might bring economic development to an area are slow to emerge without institutional mechanisms in place that are conducive to fostering entrepreneurial activity and uses of energy for activities that can generate income. Without the expansion of energy uses to activities that generate income, the economic returns to energy providers are likely to remain unattractive in poor and dispersed rural markets.
Significant success has been achieved with small pilot projects to improve energy access in some rural areas and among poor communities in urban areas. But subsequently, less thought is focused on how to scale-up from these small pilot and demonstration projects to market development and meeting the needs of the larger population.
Historically, economic development has been strongly correlated with increasing energy use and growth of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Renewable energy (RE) can help decouple that correlation, contributing to sustainable development (SD). In addition, RE offers the opportunity to improve access to modern energy services for the poorest members of society, which is crucial for the achievement of any single of the eight Millennium Development Goals.
Theoretical concepts of SD can provide useful frameworks to assess the interactions between SD and RE. SD addresses concerns about relationships between human society and nature. Traditionally, SD has been framed in the three-pillar model—Economy, Ecology, and Society—allowing a schematic categorization of development goals, with the three pillars being interdependent and mutually reinforcing. Within another conceptual framework, SD can be oriented along a continuum between the two paradigms of weak sustainability and strong sustainability. The two paradigms differ in assumptions about the substitutability of natural and human-made capital. RE can contribute to the development goals of the three-pillar model and can be assessed in terms of both weak and strong SD, since RE utilization is defined as sustaining natural capital as long as its resource use does not reduce the potential for future harvest.