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  • Stephen Nash

A demanding problem: reconciling the need to increase energy access with the need to reduce GHG emis

As I state on the front page of Kuungana’s website, 1.2 bn remain without access to electricity.  Clearly addressing that injustice has to be a major priority for our sector.  But at the same time there is clearly also a need, as acknowledged in Paris at the end of last year, to reduce the carbon emissions from the sector, to avoid dangerous climate change.

Reconciling these two priorities is a challenge.  But how much of a challenge?  How much would more developed countries need to reduce their emissions by if the eventual aim were for a world in which access to energy, and demand for energy, were broadly consistent between countries?

To state the obvious: there is huge potential for demand growth

The graph below illustrates the potential for growth in the global demand for electricity as countries that are less developed today begin to catch up.  The disparity in energy demand per capita between the most and least developed economies is enormous.  If the 1.25 bn people living in India were to have the same demand for electricity as the average US citizen that would increase demand for electricity by ~15,300 TWh.  Even if global demand for power were only to converge on more modest EU levels, this would add ~21,700 TWh to global power demand.

In some more developed countries however, we have recently seen demand declining.  Some of that reduction in demand was a result of the recession and slow economic growth that followed the financial crisis of 2007/8.  But some of the decrease has also been a result of energy efficiency measures starting to take effect.  Policy (and pure economics!) has led to more efficient appliances and much more efficient lighting.

In the UK for example, National Grid sees that trend continuing for a number of years to come (see below chart).  There is some comfort here: perhaps it is too far-fetched to take electricity demand per capita in developed countries today as a benchmark.

But some of National Grid’s scenarios show an increase in demand from the middle of the next decade, mostly resulting from the electrification of the heat and transport sectors in order to reduce emissions from those sectors.  That might suggest a further increase in carbon emissions, but it seems reasonable to assume that such measures to reduce heat and transport emissions would not make significant progress without the emissions intensity of grid-based electricity falling first.

The challenge of reducing carbon emissions in the power sector remains immense

Seen from a developed world perspective it can sometimes feel like we are making good progress in reducing GHG emissions: with renewables increasing in Europe, and shale gas dramatically decreasing emissions from coal-fired power in the US.  But as demand for power increases in less developed countries the potential for emissions to rise is huge.

The figure below shows the carbon intensity of grid power for a number of different countries and regions.  If we were to see an increase in global electricity demand of 22 PWh, then even if that additional power was generated with a capacity mix similar to that seen in Europe, this could increase global CO2 emissions by ~9,900 MtCO2 p.a.  That compares to annual global CO2 emissions today of ~32,400 MtCO2, of which ~13,500 MtCO2 are from power generation.

Such a near-doubling in CO2 emissions from the power sector is clearly not consistent with the agreement in Paris last year.  If we were to aim to cut global power sector emissions by 80%, for example, then in order to accommodate 22 PWh of additional demand, the global emissions intensity of grid power would need to fall to 60 gCO2/kWh.  That is almost as low as the 50 gCO2/kWh target set by the UK’s Committee on Climate Change.  That target is challenging for the UK; to achieve a similar target globally is a mammoth task.  There is certainly no room for complacency!

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