Chapter 5 - From imagination to reality
The solutions we choose to reduce emissions in the first half of the 21st century will provide a technological platform for the challenge of the second half: building the 1-tonne society.
Like a good operating system for a computer, this platform needs to accommodate a broad mix of tools, has to give the most useful solutions room to scale, and must facilitate the introduction and breakthrough of new and unforeseen applications.
Perhaps most importantly, a good platform should not discriminate against or preclude any useful solutions.
Electricity generation can, in principle, become a zero-emission activity in the long-run. A combination of expanded renewable sources, nuclear power, and carbon capture and storage can have the power sector headed towards a zero-emission future by the time the second half of the 21st century begins.
Wind power has grown quickly and will need to continue to do so to 2050. One can imagine wind playing a role between 10 to 100 times larger than it does today, but with its growth and contribution flattening over the course of the century.
Geothermal sources could probably provide significantly more generating capacity in the long run – perhaps as much as a 100-fold increase compared to today – but the potential varies greatly with geography.
Solar power is still in an early stage of technological development, and the potential therefore difficult to estimate. The question seems to be when various solar technologies will become cheap enough.
But one might say that the potential of solar power Is essentially unlimited, and the difficulties being worked on today are unlikely to prevent solar power from becoming the dominant power source of the latter half of the 21st century.
Nuclear power, while not based on a renewable resource, has several advantages. Nuclear fission is an extremely effective way of producing energy on a large scale. Societal acceptance of nuclear power, particularly with respect to safety concerns, waste management, and proliferation of weapons, has varied over time and from country to country.
Carbon capture and storage (CCS), as a means of making fossil-fuelled power plants low-emitting, will almost certainly have to play a role in delivering the emissions reductions needed to combat climate change. Cost may be the deciding factor.
Biofuel production faces long-term environmental constraints: available land, available water, and other environmental constraints. For this reason many observers believe that biofuels must play a limited role.
Energy efficiency must play a major role in the abatement of carbon emissions. Technical efficiency is one aspect, but not the only way to decrease the demand-side drivers of carbon emissions. Deeper, more fundamental changes in economic activity may help make the 1-tonne society a reality.
More systemic changes in the way economic activity is conceived and designed can lead to a deeper efficiency. Such changes in industrial and economic design take time. Like most technological innovations they are most likely to be driven by scarcity.
The choices of billions of individuals determine the direction of the global economy. New paradigms in value creation and economic growth will have to emerge on their own, in response to innovation and human ingenuity.