View of a tipping point: LANL conference eyes energy futures

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By Roger Snodgrass

SANTA FE – The speakers who laid the foundation for a high-level conference on 21st century energy, saw many of the same problems in a talk Monday. They differed in examples and emphasis, but they agreed that the world is facing an extreme test.

The Los Alamos National Laboratory-hosted conference that runs this week at the La Fonda Hotel, has about 125 participants.

The conference organizers propose to examine the energy question as a complex system from a perspective that combines policy, economics and new technologies.

In the role of keynote speaker was Neboysa (“just call him Naki”) Nakisenovic, a leading participant in the global discussion on energy and climate change. Nakisenovic is Acting Deputy Director of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis and Director of the Global Energy Assessment. He was Coordinating Lead Author of the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The IPCC shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with former Vice President Al Gore, for its work in establishing a scientific consensus on the dimensions of the global climate crisis.

Nakisenovic’s list of challenges began with the problem that half that population in the world does not have access to sustainable energy or food and the fact that the cost of energy and ecosystem services is rising at an extremely high rate, as energy security and reliability of the energy system decline.

“All of a sudden we have a confluence of lots of problems – climate, economy, an investment crisis,” he said. “We have to find a way out.”

Some trends have a positive aspect. While the 6.8 billion people in the world are expected to grow by another three billion by mid-century, rural population growth is leveling off.

“Half of the urban population has at least secondary education,” Nakisenovic said. “And half of the global population now lives in a democracy.”

That means some decisions will be more difficult, he said, under the constraints of the short-term planning cycle of representative governments, but perhaps the decisions will be more socially acceptable.

Unlike the United States, the Europeans Union is a party to the Kyoto protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. They have been fully involved in moving forward on a set of mutual commitments and reforms designed to avert the tipping point and mitigate a potential disaster.

Many of the worst problems can be solved, according to some 183 countries in the world by radically changing “business as usual” and working to keep the global warming lower at no more than 2 degrees Celsius.

“By the end of the century, virtually all the energy would have to be carbon free, including carbon capture and storage,” Nakisenovic said, noting that this would have to be done at a time when there has been a “a radical decline” in energy research and development since the last crisis.

The ultimate alternative, he said, might be geo-engineering, massive engineering projects to cool the planet.

In that case, he said, “The medicine might be worse than the disease.”

Altogether, only “significant investment in carbon-neutral energy R&D” and early deployment in the world will enable us to squeak by, but it has to be done in a way that can deliver clean and affordable energy to the global population.

A back-of-the-envelope calculation, he said, prescribes $20 billion a year as a working estimate for dealing with energy poverty.

A current stumbling block in international talks between developed and developing or underdeveloped countries as they head toward the next major conference in Copenhagen at the end of this year is about how to square the account on greenhouse gas emissions between the rich countries who have been doing it for a century and the poorer countries who have not yet had the chance.

“From the point of view of fairness, we who are developed have over consumed,” Nakisenovic said, “And that leads nowhere.” The hope he said is that poorer countries can leapfrog forward into much cleaner technologies.

“Energy is the most challenging task of 21st century society,” said Robert Ecke, group leader of the Center for Non-Linear Studies at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

In his remarks, Terry Wallace, who heads the science effort at the lab, said the amount of energy that will be produced and consumed in the next 20 years is expected to grow by another 50-60 percent in the next 20 years.

“And that is probably underestimated,” he said, considering that three years ago the energy for electrical devices like laptops and iPods was projected to be 1-2 percent of the total, but is already consuming 5 percent.

 “At LANL, our job is basically to look at very large problems,” he said. “We’re trying to provide solutions to policy-makers.”