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From the sands of the desert . . .

One of the most important moments at the recent Bangkok UNFCCC meeting was the release by the IEA of its Climate Change Excerpt to the World Energy Outlook 2009. The full World Energy Outlook will be released in November as usual, but the pre-release was done to coordinate with the talks in Bangkok.

The excerpt lays out a possible 450 ppm energy scenario, built in part on the fact that the recession has given us something of an emissions break, with the IEA estimating that global emissions have fallen some 3% as a result. Whilst emissions will start growing again (and probably already have), the drop is akin to at least a 3 year reprieve, which means that the window of opportunity for 450 ppm is slightly open. But this is no easy scenario and in fact doesn’t plateau at 450 ppm, but overshoots it and reaches some 510 ppm in 2035 before beginning a gradual decline from about 2045. Global energy emissions must peak just before 2020. By contrast, the reference scenario sees atmospheric levels of CO2 eventually rising to over 1000 ppm and 2030 emissions some 14 GT greater than the 450 ppm scenario.


Key mitigation approaches are shown in the chart, but energy efficiency is clearly a major part of the pathway forward. The assumptions are very challenging and will really test our capacity for change.

But the evidence we can do this is starting to appear. Whilst in Abu Dhabi this week I was taken on a short tour of the construction site that will become Masdar City. This will be the worlds first carbon neutral, zero-waste city. It will have a working population of 90,000 of whom 40,000 are residents and be powered entirely by renwable energy. The city is being built in traditional Arabic style, with narrow streets and natural shading and with a number of features to improve the circulation of air and therefore energy efficiency of the buildings.

Masdar City CO2 compared to a conventional city.

The transport infrastructure of Masdar City is also different to every other city in the world. There are no cars, just light rail and personal rail transport (PRT) – in effect small capsules on a rail system for individual and family use. The railway system is starting to appear on the construction site and a test PRT capsule has been delivered.

Masdar still faces challenges, particularly water supply. There is none, so pretty much all the water comes from desalination plants, which also means that the water has a high energy footprint. But tremendous efforts are being made to conserve and recycle, so net use will be low.

Masdar represents a truly large scale working demonstration of what is possible if we are prepared to invest in infrastructure and push technologies and design well beyond business as usual. Demonstration is also a vital step in the commercialisation of new technologies and approaches and Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company know this – I am sure they will build a flourishing business on the back of the techniques they develop in Masdar City. A truly remarkable transformation is taking place in this arid region.

A final interesting observation (at least to me) from the excerpt is that IEA have started showing total cumulative emissions since 1890 and national shares of the accumulation. This is important as the real measure should not be the particular level of emissions in any given year but the total cummulative emissions compared to the carrying capacity of the atmosphere, which is about 1 trillion tonnes of carbon (3.7 trillion tonnes of CO2). The figures shown are of course energy emissions and do not account for other gases, forestry and agriculture.
Photos and charts: Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company & International Energy Agency

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