Sci­en­tists say en­ergy sup­ply hu­man­ity’s big­gest threat

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Resources / Engineering & Mining -

EN­ERGY sup­ply poses one of the great­est threats fac­ing hu­man­ity, the world’s lead­ing acad­e­mies of science have warned, high­light­ing the peril of oil wars and cli­mate change driven by ad­dic­tion to fos­sil fu­els. Na­tions must pro­vide power for the 1.6 bil­lion peo­ple who live with­out elec­tric­ity and wean them­selves off en­ergy sources that stoke global warm­ing and geopo­lit­i­cal con­flict, the sci­en­tists de­manded.

‘‘ Mak­ing the tran­si­tion to a sus­tain­able en­ergy fu­ture is one of the cen­tral chal­lenges hu­mankind faces in this cen­tury,’’ they said. Their re­port, Light­ing the Way: To­ward A Sus­tain­able En­ergy Fu­ture, is pub­lished by the In­ter­A­cademy Coun­cil, whose 15 mem­bers in­clude the na­tional science acad­e­mies of the United States, Bri­tain, France, Ger­many, Brazil, China and In­dia. It was writ­ten by a 15-mem­ber panel whose co-chair was 1997 No­bel Physics lau­re­ate Steven Chu of the US.

‘‘ Over­whelm­ing sci­en­tific ev­i­dence shows that cur­rent en­ergy trends are un­sus­tain­able,’’ the re­port said bluntly. Its au­thors sounded a spe­cial alarm over the surge in the build­ing of con­ven­tional coal-fired power plants in China and other de­vel­op­ing coun­tries, as such in­fra­struc­ture will doubt­less be en­trenched for decades to come.

‘‘ The sub­stan­tial ex­pan­sion of coal ca­pac­ity that is now un­der way around the world may pose the sin­gle great­est chal­lenge to fu­ture ef­forts aimed at sta­bil­is­ing car­bon diox­ide (CO ) lev­els in the at­mos­phere,’’ the re­port warned.

Man­ag­ing the green­house-gas ‘‘ foot­print’’ of th­ese plants while en­cour­ag­ing a con­ver­sion to car­bon cap­ture and stor­age (CCS) will be a mighty tech­no­log­i­cal and eco­nomic chal­lenge, it said. CCS means pip­ing off CO2 at a plant and then pump­ing it into ge­o­log­i­cal cham­bers deep un­der­ground, such as dis­used oil­fields, rather than re­leas­ing it into the at­mos­phere.

Many sci­en­tists view this pilot tech­nol­ogy war­ily, wait­ing to be con­vinced that CCS is safe, for a cham­ber breach could have po­ten­tially cat­a­strophic con­se­quences for the cli­mate.

The re­port also ap­pealed for a planet-wide drive in favour of en­ergy ef­fi­ciency to re­duce car­bon emis­sions.

And it spoke loudly in favour of re­new­able en­ergy, de­scrib­ing its po­ten­tial as ‘‘ un­tapped’’ and of­fer­ing ‘‘ im­mense op­por­tu­ni­ties’’ for poor coun­tries that are rich in sun­light and wind but poor in cash to buy oil and gas. Nu­clear power as a low-car­bon re­source ‘‘ can con­tinue to make a sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tion to the world’s en­ergy port­fo­lio in the fu­ture, but only if ma­jor con­cerns re­lated to cap­i­tal cost, safety and weapons pro­lif­er­a­tion are ad­dressed’’.

Turn­ing to bio­fu­els, the sci­en­tist said that th­ese sources hold ‘‘ great prom­ise’’, but only through a switch to sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion sources. At present, feed­stocks such as sug­ar­cane and corn are the main source for bio­fu­els, which is ef­fect­ing on global food prices. A more promis­ing but un­com­mer­cialised goal is us­ing lig­no­cel­lu­lose stocks from tim­ber chips and agri­cul­tural residues. Other dawn­ing tech­nolo­gies, such as plug-in hy­brid cars and hy­dro­gen fuel cells for en­ergy stor­age, can make an im­por­tant niche con­tri­bu­tion.

But they cau­tioned that the move to sus­tain­able en­ergy could only hap­pen if na­tions work to­gether to free up the nec­es­sary fi­nan­cial re­sources and ex­per­tise — and set­ting a price for car­bon to pun­ish pol­lu­tion and waste and re­ward clean en­ergy was a key part of the mix.

A 2006 re­port by the In­ter­na­tional En­ergy Agency (IEA) sug­gested world oil con­sump­tion would rise by nearly 40 per cent by 2030 as com­pared with 2005 lev­els, and CO emis­sions would in­crease by 50 per cent over 2004 lev­els, un­der a ‘‘ busi­ness-as-usual’’ sce­nario. AFP

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