A global post-carbon society – one that does not rely on fossil fuels - is entirely feasible within the next 40 years, according to the PACT research project. However, the diversity of modern society means there is no unique pathway for getting there. PACT has explored the social and economic consequences of different policy approaches, and clearly highlights the importance of taking action to reduce CO2 emissions sooner rather than later.
The world cannot continue relying on fossil fuels indefinitely. Dwindling resources and the impact of rising CO2 levels on the environment mean that patterns of energy use will need to move towards energy efficiency and conservation, renewable energy sources, nuclear energy and new technology, such as carbon capture and storage (CCS).
The questions facing policy makers are how and when these changes should take effect, what are the relative costs and externalities, and what is the appropriate balance between them. Researchers involved with the PACT project devised three scenarios (‘Spacecraft’, ‘Smartphone’ and ‘Hard Way’) to illustrate how the transition towards a post-carbon society in the EU-27 could be achieved.
In all scenarios, key drivers of energy use (population growth, technology, employment, personal wealth, transport, urbanisation, infrastructure, buildings and housing, and lifestyles) evolve to drastically reduce CO2 emissions and by 2050, atmospheric CO2 stabilises at around 500 parts per million by volume. Assuming a similar end result in 2050, the three scenarios are used to explore the consequences of very different political approaches:
- Spacecraft - formal governmental led (‘top-down’) approach where emission reduction targets are agreed between major CO2 emitting countries, while retaining a shared priority towards maximising GDP growth. The transition is characterised by technological innovation, driven mainly by big industries, and strong public and private support exists for centralised renewable energy.
- Smartphone – governments fail to implement effective change by themselves, but foster and encourage local initiatives, driven primarily by the general public and non-governmental organisations (NGOs). GDP is no longer recognised as the best proxy for welfare; societal expectations increasingly extend ‘beyond GDP’ and new welfare measurement is adopted. No global commitment on greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reductions exists but most cities voluntarily adopt ambitious climate strategies. Decentralised initiatives, such as photovoltaic solar panels on private houses and individual lifestyle choices, become important.
- Hard Way – ‘business as usual’ scenario where no significant action is taken until the growing crisis in fossil fuel availability forces people to change their lifestyles and adopt alternative technical solutions. This reactive approach does not favour technological innovation or investment on a large scale.
Ultimately, the PACT project explores the modalities and various aspects - political, social, economic, technological - of a ‘top-down’ (government-driven) versus a ‘bottom up’ initiative, instigated by citizens and NGOs. The clearest outcome from the research, however, is the advantage of a proactive approach (in response to rising CO2 levels) over a reactive approach (in response to the growing environmental crisis and future fossil fuel shortages).
Highlights of the main findings
- Large economic growth is felt in Spacecraft (+ 350% by 2050) and to a lesser extent in Smartphone (+ 57%). Hard Way leads to an economic recession until 2025 related to the fossil fuel supply crisis and very slow growth thereafter (+ 26% overall).
Energy mix in the EU-27
- In Spacecraft, electricity demand increases by 250% by 2050, direct consumption of fossil fuels decreases by two thirds compared to 2010 levels, centralised renewables (wind power, solar, biomass) contribute 40% of electricity and nuclear 35%.
- In Smartphone, electricity demand increases by only 50%, direct consumption of fossil fuels decreases by a third, decentralised renewables contribute more than 50% of electricity and nuclear 25%.
- In Hard Way, electricity demand fluctuates around 2000 levels, direct fossil fuel consumption decreases by a third, decentralised renewables contribute more than 50% of electricity and nuclear 20%.
CO2 emissions and CCS technology
- CO2 emissions related to energy reduce by a factor of two in Spacecraft and a factor of three in Smartphone and Hard Way, due to lower industrial growth.
- By 2050, 45% of the EU’s CCS capacity is filled up in Spacecraft and Smartphone, compared to just 10% in Hard Way.
The PACT researchers conclude that despite taking very different pathways, it is possible for all three scenarios to end up at similar global CO2 emissions in 2050, largely because economic growth and climate policy have competing effects.
However, the social, economic, technological and political outcomes of the three scenarios are very different. Conditions in 2050 are far more favourable for the EU-27 in Spacecraft and Smartphone, while opting for the Hard Way approach risks economic recession, global tensions over resources and climate mitigation, and a weak world demand for EU-27 products and services.
The scenarios are not meant to indicate to policy makers which specific route to take, say the researchers, but to communicate three very clear messages:
- It is feasible for the EU-27 to dramatically reduce fossil fuel consumption in the next 40 years and to make a significant impact on climate change mitigation.
- There are many alternative pathways to get there, depending on which social forces (i.e. ‘top down’ or ‘bottom up’) take the lead.
- The pathway will be critically important as a poorly planned and implemented approach could incur severe economic, social and political costs.
In the description of each scenario, qualitative statements about how a particular factor (i.e. housing, transport, lifestyle) contributes to the post-carbon transition were translated into actual values and input into two complex numerical models. All input values were estimated from comprehensive, quantitative analyses of how each driving force affects energy use and GHG emissions, carried out in the first stages of the PACT project.
First, the VLEEM (Very Long Energy Environment Model) determined the impact of each scenario on energy needs. The POLES model then put the results into a global context by taking into account the balance between supply and demand, energy prices and world energy markets, and determined resulting CO2 emissions.
PACT – Pathways for carbon transitions (duration: 1/10/2008 – 30/9/2011). FP7 Socio-economic Sciences and Humanities, Activity 2, "Combining economic, social and environmental objectives in a European perspective", Research Area 2.1 "Socio-economic development trajectories".
Contact: Bertrand Chateau, firstname.lastname@example.org