EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 4. Stabilizing Climate: An Energy Efficiency Revolution: Introduction

The world is in the early stages of two energy revolutions. The first is a shift to new energy-efficient technologies across the board. The larger energy savings potentials include shifting from century-old technologies such as incandescent light bulbs and internal combustion engines to far more efficient technologies. Incandescents are being replaced by compact fluorescent bulbs that use one fourth as much electricity. This in turn will be cut in half by the light-emitting diodes (LEDs) coming on the market. And the most advanced plug-in hybrid car prototypes use only one fifth as much gasoline per mile as the average U.S. car on the road today.

The second energy revolution—the shift from an economy powered by oil, coal, and natural gas to one powered by wind, solar, and geothermal energy—is under way and moving fast. In Europe, new electrical generating capacity from wind, solar, and other renewables now exceeds that from fossil fuels by a wide margin. In the United States, new wind-generating capacity of 8,400 megawatts in 2008 dwarfed the 1,400 megawatts from coal. Nuclear power is fading, too. Worldwide, nuclear power generation actually declined in 2008 while wind electric generating capacity increased by 27,000 megawatts, enough to supply 8 million American homes. The world is changing fast. 1

This chapter begins with a brief description of Plan B’s goal of cutting net carbon emissions and then describes in detail the components of the first revolution—the push to raise energy efficiency worldwide. Chapter 5 describes the transition to an economy powered largely by wind, solar, and geothermal energy.

Implementing Plan B entails cutting net carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions 80 percent by 2020. This would keep atmospheric CO2 levels from exceeding 400 parts per million (ppm), up only modestly from 386 ppm in 2008. 2

This sets the stage for reducing CO2 concentrations to the 350 ppm that James Hansen and other climate scientists think is needed to avoid runaway climate change. It will also help keep future temperature rise to a minimum. Such a basic economic restructuring in time to avoid catastrophic climate disruption will be challenging, but how can we face the next generation if we do not try? 3

This restructuring of the world energy economy is being driven by some traditional concerns and some newer ones. Among the former are mounting concerns over climate change, a growing sense of oil insecurity, the rising level and volatility of fossil fuel prices, and financial outlays for importing oil.

The recent global economic downturn and the record number of young people entering job markets in developing countries has also made labor intensity a goal of energy policymaking. Improving energy efficiency and developing renewable sources of energy are both much more labor-intensive than burning fossil fuels. Closely associated with this is the realization that the countries and companies that are at the forefront of developing new energy technologies will have a strong competitive advantage in world markets. 4

The energy component of Plan B is straightforward. We raise world energy efficiency enough to at least offset all projected growth in energy use from now until 2020. We also turn to wind, solar, geothermal, and other renewable sources to largely replace oil, coal, and natural gas. In effect, Plan B outlines the transition from fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy by 2020. Difficult? Yes. Impossible? No!

Stephen Pacala and Robert Socolow at Princeton University set the stage for Plan B in 2004 when they published an article in Science that showed how annual carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels could be held at 7 billion tons instead of rising to 14 billion tons over the next 50 years, as would occur with business as usual. Their goal was to prevent atmospheric CO2 concentrations, then near 375 ppm, from rising above 500 ppm. 5

Pacala and Socolow described 15 proven technologies, including efficiency gains and new energy from various renewables, that could each cut carbon emissions 1 billion tons per year by 2054. Any 7 of these options could be combined to prevent an increase in carbon emissions from now through 2054. They further theorized that advancing technology would allow annual carbon emissions to be cut to 2 billion tons by 2104, a level that could likely be absorbed by natural carbon sinks on land and in the oceans. 6

The Pacala/Socolow exercise was neither a plan nor a projection but a conceptualization, one that has been extraordinarily useful in helping analysts think about the future relationship between energy and climate. Now it is time to select the most promising energy technologies and structure an actual plan to cut carbon emissions. And since climate is changing much faster than anticipated even a few years ago, we believe the world needs to halt the rise in CO2 levels not at 500 ppm in 2054 but at 400 ppm in 2020. First we look at the enormous potential for raising energy efficiency in the lighting sector. 7

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1. Global Wind Energy Council, Global Wind 2008 Report (Brussels: 2009), pp. 3, 56; Erik Shuster, Tracking New Coal-Fired Power Plants (Pittsburgh, PA: U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), National Energy Technology Laboratory, January 2009); “Nuclear Dips in 2008,” World Nuclear News, 29 May 2009; 1 megawatt of installed wind capacity produces enough electricity to supply 300 homes from American Wind Energy Association, “U.S. Wind Energy Installations Reach New Milestone,” press release (Washington, DC: 14 August 2006); number of homes calculated using average U.S. household size from U.S. Census Bureau, “2005–2007 American Community Survey 3-Year Estimates—Data Profile Highlights,” at factfinder.census.gov/servlet/ACSSAFFFacts, viewed 9 April 2009, and population from U.S. Census Bureau, State & Country QuickFacts, electronic database, at quickfacts.census.gov, updated 20 February 2009.

2. Carbon dioxide pathway modeled using fossil fuel emissions from Tom Boden and Gregg Marland, “Global CO2 Emissions from Fossil-Fuel Burning, Cement Manufacture, and Gas Flaring: 1751–2006” and “Preliminary 2006-07 Global & National Estimates by Extrapolation,” both in Carbon Dioxide Information and Analysis Center (CDIAC), Fossil Fuel CO2 Emissions (Oak Ridge, TN: Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), 2009), and from land use change emissions from R. A. Houghton, “Carbon Flux to the Atmosphere from Land-Use Changes,” in CDIAC, Trends: A Compendium of Data on Global Change (Oak Ridge, TN: ORNL, 2008), with decay curve cited in J. Hansen et al., “Dangerous Human-Made Interference with Climate: A GISS ModelE Study,” Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, vol. 7 (2007), pp. 2,287–312; current concentration from Pieter Tans, “Trends in Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide–Mauna Loa,” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Earth System Research Laboratory, at www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/ccgg/trends, viewed 7 April 2009.

3. James Hansen et al., “Target Atmospheric CO2: Where Should Humanity Aim?” Open Atmospheric Science Journal, vol. 2 (15 October 2008), pp. 217–31.

4. Lester R. Brown, “Creating New Jobs, Cutting Carbon Emissions, and Reducing Oil Imports by Investing in Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency,” Plan B Update (Washington, DC: Earth Policy Institute, 11 December 2008).

5. S. Pacala and R. Socolow, “Stabilization Wedges: Solving the Climate Problem for the Next 50 Years with Current Technologies,” Science, vol. 305 (13 August 2004), pp. 968–72.

6. Ibid.

7. International Alliance of Research Universities, Climate Change: Global Risks, Challenges & Decisions, Synthesis Report from International Scientific Congress (Copenhagen: University of Copenhagen, 2009).

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