What Does a Low-Carbon Future Look Like?
The basic roadmap to a sustainable energy system dates back to the 1970s. The main elements of a low-carbon future include:
- Dramatically improving energy efficiency and productivity, to get more economic activity out of every unit of energy we produce
- Decarbonizing the electricity system with renewable energy sources
- Converting some of our most important energy uses—space heat, personal vehicles, and some industrial applications—from fossil fuels to electricity
- Searching for sustainable bioenergy feedstocks for the remaining energy uses, like freight hauling and high-temperature heat, that can’t currently be supplied by electricity.
Changing over the economy will be a huge, complicated job, though not as huge as you might have heard: “Achieving the goal would cost only around 1% of GDP a year out through 2050, and if we started now, we could allow infrastructure to turn over at its natural rate,” notes grist.org climate specialist David Roberts.
The Energy Productivity Supergiant
Some parts of the low-carbon transition are well under way. Smarter Shift Associate Ralph Torrie points out that Canada gets 40% more economic activity out of every unit of energy it consumes than it did in the 1970s. Other industrialized countries have made similar gains.
“The biggest petroleum finds are dwarfs compared to this energy productivity supergiant,” he wrote in a 2011 blog post. “It saves us more fuel and electricity today than the combined total of all the new sources of oil, gas, coal, nuclear, hydro, solar, wind, and biomass energy we’ve developed over the last four decades.
“And we’re not even close to fully exploiting a vast resource that is limited only by the scope of human ingenuity. A resource that grows whenever anyone has a bright idea for doing something in a way that uses less fuel or electricity.”
We Still Have Things to Learn
When Torrie and Smarter Shift President Mitchell Beer led a Canadian climate and energy project in 2011-2013, they focused on some of the remaining challenges on the road to a low-carbon energy future. Some of those challenges are still out there:
What kind of quality controls will it take to get the job done right, every time?
What will it take to reduce freight volumes, or at least slow down the rate of increase?
How can a process of economic conversion involve today’s fossil fuel work force in planning and preparing for tomorrow’s low-carbon jobs?
Learn more about the low-carbon transition and join the conversation on The Energy Mix.