Power paradox: the algorithm of carbon and international development.

Author:Ferrey, Steven
Position:Symposium: Creating a Legal Framework for Sustainable Energy

Energy flows underlie all human activity and substantially influence both the economic and the ecological systems locally and regionally, as well as globally. (1)


    The world is increasingly becoming smaller--and hotter. (2) Global warming is the conspicuous environmental challenge of this century. It has emerged as a meta-environmental issue, subsuming within its reach those conventional environmental issues of air pollution, water supply, ecosystem management and environmental equity. With all eyes trained on what a few developed countries will do, we have lost acute focus on where lies the crucible for successful global warming policy.

    All forecasts of the U.S. Department of Energy, the International Energy Agency, and independent forecasters, agree that greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions will increase exponentially, not decrease, during the foreseeable future. (3) The offending GHG emissions are a function of modern society's traditional practice of using fire to manipulate the universe--particularly combusting fossil fuels for electric power production. (4) Power derived from burning gaseous, liquid and solid fossil fuels used to create electric power releases copious quantities of C[O.sub.2] to the environment. (5)

    There is a three-part algorithm with inputs of (1) population growth, (2) energy intensity of development, and (3) choice of technology, that determines every larger carbon footprint of modern civilization. (6) Only the last of these three inputs appears within the realistic control of political institutions globally. There are now advanced real-time demonstrations of what will change the technology vector in developing nations. Drawing on the author's recent comprehensive evaluation for the World Bank analyzing what will and will not work to mitigate GHG emissions in the electric power appetite of the world] this Article creates a blueprint for legal and technical implementation of effective GHG controls.

    We either lock onto a solution now, within the next five to ten years, or the battle may be lost. (8) The construction of power generation facilities is increasing as population growth and development continue, especially in developing nations. (9) The majority of power generation expansion will occur in Asia over the next decades. (10) Unabated, this exponential increase in power demand in developing nations will tip the global environment thermostat to run-away global warming risk, regardless of what the U.S. and other developed nations do. (11) If not addressed, the annual increase in GHG emission in India, China, Brazil, Indonesia, or any one of several dozen fast-growing nations, will swamp all of the collective GHG reductions of the developed nations complying with the modest requirement of the Kyoto Protocol. (12) Current global warming policy requires a wider and sharper analytic lens. It is at this international carbon margin where the battle on global warming, and the planetary future, ultimately will be won or lost.


    1. The Algorithm of Carbon: Population, Energy Intensity, and Technology

      Greenhouse gases are formed naturally, as well as by anthropogenic sources. Anthropogenic emission of greenhouse gases is driven by a fairly straightforward relationship, where GHGs are a function of a three-part algorithm with inputs of population, degree of development and electrification, and choice of technology. Affecting any of the three elements in this equation changes the emission of atmospheric gases that drive the models of global warming. To mitigate global warming, we must immediately influence some or all of these three variables. However, two of these variables seem beyond the reach of most governments; one is within the control of world environmental regulatory institutions.

      First, there is a direct, if complex, link between population and GHG emissions. (13) There is little doubt that world population will increase significantly during the next fifty years, especially in less industrialized, poorer developing nations. World population could reach eight billion people by 2020 and nine to ten billion by 2050. (14) East Asia (including China) and South Asia now contain more than three billion of the world's six billion population. (15) Urbanization and population growth in India have driven a 208% growth in India's energy consumption in the last twenty years. (16) By 2025, one quarter of the world's population will be living in Asian cities. (17)

      There are, however, still between 1.6 billion to 2 billion people (18) worldwide with no access to modern energy services or electricity and 56% of the world's rural population lacks access to energy services. (19) Due to population growth, the number of people without access to modern energy services is increasing at a rate of approximately thirty million people per year. (20) Most of these people will desire, and ultimately receive, electricity service at some future time. Population is not a variable that is controllable with the governmental systems employed in most of the countries of the world or by international organizations.

      The second input in the algorithm of carbon, the degree and energy intensity of development, can be influenced by regulatory policy, but it is not clear that governments of the world are willing to attempt to control this variable. Migration and rural populations to cities and urbanization will increase dramatically per capita electric consumption in developing nations. (21) Developing nations view electrification and a higher carbon economy to be the signature of progress and development. Direct benefits from electric energy access include reliable lighting, heat and refrigeration, health benefits due to enhanced indoor air quality from the cessation of use of polluting fuel sources, reduced fire hazards, higher quality health services equipment, greater business productivity, and increased opportunities for education. (22)

      The fundamental touchstone technology for development in all nations is electricity. Electricity has been described as an "agent of technological progress." (23) As electricity is used in place of fossil fuels and human labor, less overall energy is used and more productive and efficient operations occur in certain segments of society. (24) Electricity is so indispensable that it has become "transparent to most users, at least until there is an outage." (25)

      Statistics of energy use illustrate this intensification phenomenon. The average annual growth rate in primary energy use in developing countries from 1990 to 2001 grew by 3.2% per year, compared to industrialized countries where growth over the same period was 1.5% annually. (26) As much as a 4% per year increase in demand by developing countries over the next twenty years is predicted by the International Energy Agency. (27) The U.S. Department of Energy forecasts that energy demand in developing Asia will double over the next twenty-five years. (28) The International Energy Agency in Paris forecasts that two-thirds of all future energy demand will emanate from China and India alone. (29)

      The energy needs of countries outside the OECD will require an investment of some two trillion U.S. dollars to install approximately 1900 gigawatts of new electric generating capacity by 2025. (30) The International Energy Agency projected that it will require an investment of sixteen trillion dollars by 2030 to meet the world's energy requirements, with five trillion dollars of that amount allocated to electric power production, primarily in Asia, Latin America, and Africa. (31) It is expected that global energy use will double by 2040 and triple by 2060, creating a tremendous demand on existing fuel sources. (32)

      In a world where burning fossil fuels is the dominant electric energy signature, intensified use of electric power foretells a direct increase in carbon emissions. Some projections estimate that by 2020, China's GHG emissions will quadruple and Asia alone will emit 60% of the world's carbon emissions. (33) To cope with the increased electrification that accompanies the substantial increase in per capita energy use which will occur in developing nations in the next decades, the world may have to achieve a reduction of C[O.sub.2] of up to 50% during the twenty-first century. (34) While increased energy intensity in developing nations may be difficult to control, the future is directly dependent on whether fossil fuels or renewable technologies are chosen now to generate power to meet this new, more intensive electricity demand.

      Thus, the third and the only one of these inputs in the global warming equation that can be influenced dramatically now by policymakers is the choice of technology for electrification and development. (35) There is a policy choice involved between conventional and alternative resources. It is not an "either/or" choice. This is no small choice of energy infrastructure in shaping the carbon intensity of power production. The balance chosen between conventional and alternative electric resources has immense implications for the emission of greenhouse gases.

      The choices for many developing countries are challenging. We stand at a crossroads in time because in the next two decades there will be a massive electrification of developing nations. (36) During the next decade, developing nations will choose whether to deploy conventional fossil-fired or sustainable renewable options to generate electricity. Once installed, those facilities will remain in place, contributing to global warming in the foreseeable future, often for forty years and in many cases longer. (37) These choices in energy technology made now certainly will be the signature of our carbon footprint during the crucial period of the next half century during which we may pass the point of no return in terms of global warming.(38)


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