Lighting the way: leading scientists sketch roadmap for sustainable energy

Some of the world’s leading scientists have set out a roadmap for achieving sustainable energy, making recommendations in the areas of carbon capture and storage, nuclear energy and biofuels,
and emphasising the role of scientists in finding solutions.

‘Science provides the basis for a rational discourse about trade-offs and risks, for selecting research and development priorities, and for identifying new opportunities – openness is one of
its dominant values,’ states the report by the Inter Academy Council (IAC), which brings together national science academies from around the world.

‘Engineering, through the relentless optimisation of the most promising technologies, can deliver solutions – learning by doing is among its dominant values,’ the report continues.

The report highlights the need to take urgent action to meet basic global energy requirements. It cites just two dimensions of the challenge ahead: oil security and climate change. Current
forecasts by the International Energy Agency suggest that a continuation of business-as-usual will lead to an increase in world oil consumption by nearly 40% (compared to 2005 levels) and an
increase in carbon dioxide emissions of 55% (compared to 2004 levels) by 2030.

An IAC Study Panel looked at the technology and resource options available to facilitate a transition to sustainable energy, along with the policy options and research priorities. The panel
came up with nine recommendations that need to be implemented simultaneously in order to have the desired overall effect. Three of the recommendations are however considered critical, and the
IAC advocates immediate action on these. They are: concerted efforts to improve energy efficiency and reduce carbon intensity, including the worldwide introduction of price signals for carbon
emissions; technologies for capturing and sequestering carbon from fossil fuels; the acceleration of the development and deployment of renewable energy technologies.

Technologies for capturing and sequestering carbon fossil fuels, particularly coal, can play a major role in the cost-effective management of global carbon dioxide emissions, according to the
report. It highlights however that without policy intervention, ‘the vast majority of the coal-fired power plants constructed in the next two decades will be conventional, pulverised coal
plants’.

Present technologies for capturing carbon dioxide emissions from pulverised coal plants on a retrofit basis are expensive and energy intensive. The panel recommends that where new coal plants
without capture must be constructed, the most efficient technologies should be used. In addition, minimising the costs of future retrofits for carbon capture should become a priority. This
could be tackled by developing at least some elements of carbon capture technology at every new plant.

The report also recommends aggressive moves to commercialise carbon capture and storage, and further study of potential retrofit technologies for post-combustion carbon capture at existing
pulverised coal plants.

Nuclear power should not be ignored, the IAC suggests. The potential contribution of nuclear power – a low-carbon resource – to the world’s energy mix is significant. But it is currently dogged
by concerns about cost, safety and weapons proliferation.

The report recommends that the United Nations commission a transparent and objective re-examination of the issues surrounding nuclear power. ‘It is essential that the general public be informed
about the outcome of this re-examination,’ the report adds. In the meantime, the scientific community should continue its efforts to improve reactor safety and find safe waste management
solutions.

The IAC states that renewable energy offers opportunities for technological progress and innovation, as well as sustainable energy. It recommends subsidies for the early development of new
renewable technologies, saying that this support should be targeted towards promising but not-yet-commercial technologies, and should then decline over time.

The report also recommends more research on transformational technologies, such as new classes of solar cells that can be made with thin-film, continuous processes.

Biofuels are endorsed by the report as holding ‘great promise for simultaneously addressing climate change and energy security concerns’. In order to get the most out of biofuels, the focus
should be on producing fuels from lignocellulosic feedstocks (including agricultural residues and waste). These have the potential to generate five to 10 times more fuel than processes using
feedstocks such as sugar cane and corn. This should be a research priority, along with methods for the direct microbial production of butanol or other forms of biofuels that may be superior to
ethanol.

The IAC calls on the scientific community to strive for increased international coordination in energy research, and to collaborate more with the private sector. For their part, governments
must make available more funding for research, while both groups should devote more time and effort to educating the public about the need for investing in energy research.

‘Science and industry can help provide solutions but it has to be in a framework put in place by governments and it has to be supported by changes in the behaviour of individuals,’ said Martin
Rees, President of the UK’s Royal Society, one of the academies represented by the IAC. ‘There is unlikely to be a ‘silver bullet’ solution, a sustainable energy future will require the
investment of time and resources, an ability to learn from past mistakes and a willingness to cooperate internationally.’

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