By Husam Ibrahim, International Science Council (ISC)
The IIASA-ISC Rethinking Energy Solutions Report identifies the negative and positive lessons learnt from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic in relation to energy consumption and demand, and recommends several immediate actions.
Credit: Adam Islaam – IIASA
As a result of the pandemic’s confinement and containment policies, energy demand and resulting energy-related carbon emissions declined by an estimated 2.4 billion tonnes in 2020 – a record drop according to researchers at Future Earth’s Global Carbon Project. However, the reduction is likely to be short-lived if structural changes do not occur.
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused foreseeable positive and negative disruptions to the global energy sector. This has revealed opportunities that can be learnt from to meet Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Agreement pledges, with the positive disruptions showing us the possibility of a more sustainable and resilient future.
The IIASA-ISC Rethinking Energy Solutions Report recommends actions based on the opportunities and vulnerabilities in energy systems that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to light.
“The pandemic is a threat, but also an opportunity, because it showed that the system we have spent a lot of money and resources on is not working the way it should, so the crisis should be used to draw up new budgets, take new actions, and rebuild society.”
– Behnam Zakeri, Research Scholar, IIASA
The report highlights that solutions previously thought to be out of reach are far more possible than expected. One such positive outcome is the digitalization of physical activities, such as attending work, schools, conferences, and other gatherings online. This has resulted in short-term lifestyle changes — introducing and normalizing digital solutions for a mass audience — which the report recommends capitalizing on in a post-COVID society.
Some companies, like Spotify, a music streaming service, have announced that they will let their employees work remotely from anywhere after the pandemic. The report suggests that more companies and governments should do the same, as digitalization offers opportunities to use resources more efficiently, and so has the potential to make consumption more sustainable and to reduce carbon footprints.
Efforts to digitalize and reduce the population’s carbon footprint work hand-in-hand with the need to reinvent urban spaces to reach the SDGs and combat climate change.
Cities consume 60-80% of global energy and produce more than 70% of carbon emissions. What’s more, 70% of the world’s population is projected to live in urban areas by 2050.
The report proposes that cities should be redesigned into more sustainable ‘urban villages’ so that they are optimized for energy efficiency. One way to do this would be to redesign cities into compact neighborhoods where all amenities (shops, offices, schools, etc.) are within walking distance. Paris, France, for example, promotes self-sufficient neighborhoods, with all the essential amenities placed within a 15-minute radius. Several other cities like Melbourne, Australia, with its “20-minute neighborhoods” and the Nordhavn “5-minute neighborhood” in Copenhagen, Denmark, are promoting this new standard for the use of space and sustainable mobility.
Another key approach to reinventing urban spaces is prioritizing nature-based solutions by using parks, green roofs, green walls, and blue infrastructure to combat climate change and connect the population back to nature. This also means centering public spaces around people, by converting street spaces from car use to sidewalks and bike lanes, and enhancing the quality and safety of walking and biking infrastructures.
The report also recommends that cities be rebuilt to incorporate renewable energy. The costs for renewable technologies are declining quite fast, but Zakeri explained that the problem with moving to renewable energy is not the cost but a lack of understanding. Consumers, experts, and governments lack the knowledge to distribute, access and install these technologies. However, in recent times, scientists and other experts have brought more awareness to them and are helping the trend move forward.
The report states the importance of developing net zero-energy communities that have a holistic approach to energy-efficient building renovation and construction of new buildings. The net zero-energy design must consider the energy interactions between individual buildings and the broader energy system on a local level.
These recommended actions aren’t just about energy efficiency but about creating a more fulfilling life for all.
“Rebuilding cities to be more sustainable and resilient [to future crises] not only has the potential to reduce energy consumption but also create a more joyful lifestyle that improves the wellbeing and experience of people living in a city.”
By Shonali Pachauri, Senior Researcher in the IIASA Energy Program
Shonali Pachauri explains why data, indicators, and monitoring at finer scales are important to ensure that everyone benefits from policies and efforts aimed at achieving national and global development goals.
A world where no one is left behind by 2030, is the promise nations have made by adopting the United Nations’ Agenda for Sustainable Development. But how does one ensure that no one is left behind? It requires designing inclusive policies and programs that target the most vulnerable and marginalized regions and populations. Sound data and indicators underpin our current understanding of the status of development and are an important part of periodic reviews to determine the direction and pace of progress towards achieving agreed goals. These form the basis of informed decisions and evidence-based policymaking. While an exhaustive list of indicators has been prescribed to monitor progress towards the globally agreed goals, these have been largely defined at a national scale. These goals rely overwhelmingly on simple averages and aggregates that mask underlying variations and distributions.
Recent work I’ve been involved in makes the pitfalls of working with averages and aggregates alone abundantly clear. They can obscure uneven patterns of changes and impacts across regions and groups within the same nation. The overall conclusion of this work is that, even if the globally agreed goals are met by 2030, this is no guarantee that everyone will benefit from their achievement.
A recent Nature Energy –News & Views piece I was invited to write reports on a study that assessed the impacts of China’s recent coal to electricity program across villages in the Beijing municipal region. The program subsidizes electricity and electric heat pumps and has been rolling out a ban on coal use for household heating. The study found that the benefits of the program to home comfort, air quality, and wellbeing varied significantly across rich and poor districts. In poor districts, the study found that the ban was not effective as poor households were still unable to afford the more expensive electric heating and were continuing to rely on coal. Studies such as this one that help us understand how and why benefits of a program may vary across regions or population groups can aid policy- and decision makers in formulating more fair and inclusive policies.
In other recent research carried out with colleagues in the IIASA Energy Program, the Future Energy Program at the Fondazione Eni Enrico Mattei (FEEM) in Italy, and the Institute for Integrated Energy Systems at the University of Victoria, Canada, we developed a detailed satellite nightlights derived dataset to track progress with providing electricity access at a sub-national level in Africa. We found that while progress with electrification between 2014 and 2018 varied across nations, at a sub-national provincial level, disparities were even more pronounced. Even more surprising, while electricity access is generally higher and easier to extend in urban areas, we found urban pockets where access has stagnated or even worsened. This correlated with areas where in-migration of populations had been high. These areas likely include urban slums or peri-urban regions where expanding electricity access continues to be challenging. Furthermore, our analysis shows that even where access has been extended, there are regions where electricity use remains extremely low, which means that people are not really benefitting from the services electricity can provide.
In a final example, of research carried out with collaborators from the University of British Columbia and the Stockholm Environment Institute, we evaluated a large nationwide program to promote cooking with liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) in Indian households to induce a shift away from the use of polluting solid fuels. While this program specifically targets poor and deprived, largely rural households, our assessment found that although there has been an unprecedented increase in enrollments of new LPG customers under the program, this has not been matched by an equal increase in LPG sales. In fact, we found consumption of LPG by program beneficiaries was about half that of the average rural consumer. Moreover, when we examined how purchases were distributed across all new consumers, we found that about 35% of program beneficiaries purchased no refills during the first year and only 7% bought enough to substitute half or more of their total cooking energy needs with LPG. Clearly, the health and welfare benefits of a transition to cleaner cooking are still to be realized for most people covered by this program.
Analyses, such as the examples I’ve discussed here, clearly highlight that we need data, indicators, and monitoring at much finer scales to really assess if all regions and populations are benefitting from policies and efforts to achieve national and globally agreed development goals. Relying on aggregates and averages alone may paint a picture that hides more than it reveals. Thus, without such finer-scale analysis and an understanding of the distributional impacts of policies and programs, we may end up worsening inequalities and leaving many behind.
 Pachauri S (2019). Varying impacts of China’s coal ban. Nature Energy 4: 356-357. [pure.iiasa.ac.at/15905]
 Falchetta G, Pachauri S, Parkinson S, & Byers E (2019). A high-resolution gridded dataset to assess electrification in sub-Saharan Africa. Scientific Data 6 (1): art. 110. [pure.iiasa.ac.at/15982]
 Kar A, Pachauri S, Bailis R, & Zerriffi H (2019). Using sales data to assess cooking gas adoption and the impact of India’s Ujjwala program in rural Karnataka. Nature Energy [pure.iiasa.ac.at/15994]
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.
On 14 and 15 May, Vienna hosted two important events within the frame of the world energy and climate change agendas: the Vienna Energy Forum and the R20 Austrian World Summit. Since I had the pleasure and privilege to attend both, I would like to share some insights and relevant messages I took home with me.
To begin with, ‘renewable energy’ was the buzzword of the moment. Renewable energy is not only the future, it is the present. Recently, 20-year solar PV contracts were signed for US$0.02/kWh. However, renewable energy is not only about mitigating the effects of climate change, but also about turning the planet into a world we (humans from all regions, regardless of the local conditions) want to live in. It is not only about producing energy, about reaching a number of KWh equivalent to the expected demand–renewables are about providing a service to communities, meeting their needs, and improving their ways of life. It does not consist only of taking a solar LED lamp to a remote rural house in India or Africa. It is about first understanding the problem and then seeking the right solution. Such a light will be of no use if a mother has to spend the whole day walking 10 km to find water at the closest spring or well, and come back by sunset to work on her loom, only to find that the lamp has run out of battery. Why? Because her son had to take it to school to light his way back home.
This is where the concept of ‘nexus’ entered the room, and I have to say that more than once it was brought up by IIASA Deputy Director General Nebojsa Nakicenovic. A nexus approach means adopting an integrated approach and understanding both the problems and the solutions, the cross and rebound effects, and the synergies; and it is on the latter that we should focus our efforts to maximize the effect with minimal effort. Looking at the nexus involves addressing the interdependencies between the water, energy, and food sectors, but also expanding the reach to other critical dimensions such as health, poverty, education, and gender. Overall, this means pursuing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Another key word that was repeatedly mentioned was finance. The question was how to raise and mobilize funds for the implementation of the required solutions and initiatives. The answer: blended funding and private funding mobilization. This means combining different funding sources, including crowd funding and citizen-social funding initiatives, and engaging the private sector by reducing the risk for investors. A wonderful example was presented by the city of Vienna, where a solar power plant was completely funded (and thus owned) by Viennese citizens through the purchase of shares.
This connects with the last message: the importance of a bottom-up approach and the critical role of those at the local level. Speakers and panelists gave several examples of successful initiatives in Mali, India, Vienna, and California. Most of the debates focused on how to search for solutions and facilitate access to funding and implementation in the Global South. However, two things became clear. Firstly, massive political and investment efforts are required in emerging countries to set up the infrastructural and social environment (including capacity building) to achieve the SDGs. Secondly, the effort and cost of dismantling a well-rooted technological and infrastructural system once put in place, such as fossil fuel-based power networks in the case of developed countries, are also huge. Hence, the importance of emerging economies going directly for sustainable solutions, which will pay off in the future in all possible aspects. HRH Princess Abze Djigma from Burkina Faso emphasized that this is already happening in Africa. Progress is being made at a critical rate, triggered by local initiatives that will displace the age of huge, donor-funded, top-down projects, to give way to bottom-up, collaborative co-funding and co-development.
Overall, if I had to pick just one message among the information overload I faced over these two days, it would be the statement by a young fellow in the audience from African Champions: “Africa is not underdeveloped, it is waiting and watching not to repeat the mistakes made by the rest of the world.” We should keep this message in mind.
By Anneke Brand, IIASA science communication intern 2016.
Accidents, lane closures, and congestion all affect the flow of road traffic and harmful emissions from vehicles. Live traffic data allow congestion to be detected more accurately and provide a more precise overview of vehicle emissions at different times and places. In his project for the Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP), Fabian Heidegger investigates how road traffic affects air pollution in cities, using Vienna and surrounding areas as a case study.
Air pollution is a major problem in Europe and globally. Health impacts of air pollution include a range of respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. “10-20% of Europe’s urban population is exposed to excessive levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2), along with several other air pollutants. NO2 pollution is highest along busy roads. Technical measures have so far often been circumvented, so cities are looking for other measures to reduce the pollution load. Traffic management has therefore gained interest as a way to reduce air pollution,” says Jens Borken-Kleefeld, Heidegger’s study leader at IIASA.
To calculate the amount of air pollution that cars and other vehicles release into the air, researchers use models that apply various sets of data: traffic networks, where and how far people drive, and emission factors of different vehicle categories. Input data for the model may include how many people live in a certain area, how many of them use cars, where they normally drive, and how many grams of pollutants (such as nitric oxide and NO2 gases) their type of cars emit per kilometer.
Most of these models rely on average daily traffic data. For Heidegger’s YSSP project, which is related to his PhD work at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences in Vienna, he is incorporating real-time data, measured every five minutes, into a traffic simulation model developed by Intelligent Transport Systems Vienna Region. A set of detectors in and around the city record the number and speed of vehicles. In addition, location data from the taxi fleet is incorporated into the traffic simulation. Heidegger can therefore immediately identify adverse traffic conditions like stop-and-go traffic, which has a high impact on emissions. This allows for a more accurate calculation and can help design traffic interventions for improving both traffic flow and air quality.
“In the case of a road closure, local emissions will obviously be lower at the specific road but total emissions for the area could be higher than before when drivers use alternative, longer routes or end up in stop-and-go traffic,” says Heidegger.
In order to understand how these diversions and the displacement of pollutants can affect overall emissions, Heidegger will first determine the emissions per street section, and second, what the effects are of diversions from day-to-day traffic patterns. Together with researchers from the Air Quality and Greenhouse Gases Program at IIASA, Heidegger plans to assess the impact of different intervention scenarios, for example an environmental zone in the city, where only modern cars will be allowed to enter. In a second scenario he will look at the effect of people commuting to Vienna, and a third scenario will explore the consequences of expanding pedestrian zones. The researchers hope that this study will better their understanding of the potential of traffic management to reduce air pollution.
By Sabine Fuss, Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change (MCC) and IIASA Ecosystems Services and Management Program
The Sleipner CCS plant in Norway was the world’s first commercial CO2 storage facility. Photo: Kjetil Alsvik/Statoil
Current strategies for limiting climate change to no more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels are centered around a shift towards less carbon-intensive technology, increases in energy efficiency, and changes in management and behavior.
This won’t be enough.
Global carbon dioxide concentrations have exceeded the benchmark of 400ppm, and it is clear that we’re headed for an overshoot. This means that to have a chance of stabilizing climate change below 2°C, we will actually need to extract greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, thus achieving what we call “negative emissions.” This is even more evident when we look at continued population growth, our dependence on existing infrastructure in the near future, and rising living standards in many emerging regions.
A wide range of possibilities – but many open questions The IPCC’s AR5 scenarios show that negative emissions could be achieved by combining carbon-neutral Bioenergy with Carbon dioxide Capture and Storage (BECCS), but also through afforestation. Most of the ambitious climate stabilization pathways show that we would need BECCS by the middle of the century, even though the removed emissions would not outweigh the remaining positive emissions at that point, that is, we would not yet see net negative emissions.
More precisely, the most recent scenarios of Integrated Assessment Models (IAMs) show that to achieve the 2°C limit, negative emissions of up to 13.2 GtCO2-eq./yr in 2100 are needed. This could be reached by BECCS, which might run into problems as competing for land with other demands, or a technology known as Direct Air Capture, which is more energy-intensive. Enhanced Weathering and afforestation might also deliver negative emissions, though of a smaller magnitude. However, all the presented negative emission technologies have their limits and none is a silver bullet. Clearly, there are more cards in the deck than just BECCS and we will have to aim for a portfolio respecting limits and trade-offs with other policy goals, but also opportunities and synergies.
One glaring clear point: negative emissions cannot be used to continue “business as usual” and then remove the bulk of the emissions mid-century. The required carbon flows would simply be too large. At the same time, such a high-emissions world would bring with it major environmental feedbacks, such as ocean acidification. Thus, negative emissions have to be understood as just one element of a mitigation portfolio complementing drastic GHG emission reductions in the near term.
While the large-scale use of biomass and its impacts have been at the center of bioenergy discussions for a while, CCS will also need to be scaled up to massive amounts of up to 25 GtCO2 per year by 2100. However, geology experts at the meeting were optimistic with respect to the storage potentials for these large amounts. The only challenge would be to find enough viable storage sites with assured capacity.
Other challenges include the need to investigate negative emission options that are not yet included in the AR5 scenarios, such as Enhanced Weathering, Direct Air Capture, and a method to improve CCS and BECCS with geothermal energy. How much the combined potential of these negative emissions options will indeed reduce temperatures also depends on the response of the climate system. However, two modelling teams presented new insights on reaction to overshoot, and negative emissions physically needed to keep global warming below 2°C.
While negative emissions are needed at large scale, many questions remain, which will need to be addressed very soon in order for scenarios meet reality. Communication must improve between scientists, politicians, practitioners, but also media and the public. Existing misunderstandings, for example, that negative emissions are just an excuse to continue on a business as usual pathway, or that negative emissions carry the same risks as geo-engineering, need to be resolved.
Sabine Fuss is leading the working group “Sustainable resource management and global change” at the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change (MCC) in Berlin and holds a guest affiliation with IIASA’s ESM program. She is co-leading (with D. v. Vuuren) the research initiative “MAnaging Global Negative Emission Technologies (MaGNET)” hosted at the GCP Tsukuba Office
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.