Energy efficiency could limit global warming and raising living standards for all

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It should be possible for everyone in the world to enjoy a good life without a surge in energy demand and carbon emissions, researchers report in the journal Nature Energy. The study shows that the global warming target of 1.5°C can be reached even as living standards rise in developing countries.

Doing this shouldn’t require any new-fangled technologies. Instead, the key word will be efficiency. By changing how we travel, condition our homes, and use devices, the researchers envision that global energy demand in 2050 could be 40 percent lower than today even as the world’s population and people’s income and activity increases.

It is widely believed that a rising wealthy population in developing countries will increase energy use. Many scenarios for meeting the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global warming to 1.5°C rely on unproven technologies such as bioenergy with capturing carbon dioxide from the air.

A better option would be to reduce energy demand, according to the team led by researchers from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Laxenburg, Austria.

They started with three areas with room for improvements in energy efficiency: transportation, heating and cooling, and the manufacture of consumer goods. They look at present-day technology and social trends that are driving changes in energy use. And then they project how much energy could be saved by doubling down on these trends and making them more widespread.

In transport, for example, electric cars, shared use of car fleets, and more flexible public transport, could reduce energy demand of transport by 60 percent by 2050. Energy-efficiency standards for new constructions as well as building retrofits that improve efficiency could reduce energy use by over 75 percent. And, even with more consumer devices around, energy use could be limited because gadgets are getting more efficient, and smart phones can replace multiple devices like radios, cameras and TVs.

With all these inputs, they calculated the global energy demand in 2050. And then, by using computer models of global energy supply and environment impact, they assess that we could meet that demand by using current technologies like renewable energy and nuclear power.

Of course, this is a hypothetical scenario. Making it a reality will require unprecedented policy efforts, low-carbon innovations by businesses, and for individuals and households to change day-to-day activities.

If we can do all that, though, we can “reverse the historical trajectory of ever-rising energy demand,” lead author Arnulf Grubler said in a press release. And it would mean improved living standards that does not come at the expense of the global environment.

Source: Arnulf Grubler et al. A low energy demand scenario for meeting the 1.5 °C target and sustainable development goals without negative emission technologies. Nature Energy, 2018.

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