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Providing international solutions

American security will require addressing the energy challenges of other nations as well as our own.

International cooperation is essential.
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As U.S. researchers focus on domestic energy issues, they could easily miss the century's dominant energy challenge: to increase energy supplies for the world's growing population without contributing further to environmental degradation. Accomplishing this monumental task would represent the most fundamental change in the world's energy production since the Industrial Revolution.

By 2100, world energy consumption is projected to have increased by nearly four-fold, with most of the growth occurring in developing countries such as China and India. Analyses conducted for the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in 1992 estimated that total global energy services need to be increased by 7 or 8 times to reduce gaps between the world's rich and poor nations.

To reach the formidable goal of significantly expanding global supplies of energy services without a corresponding increased threat to the world environment, tomorrow's energy systems will have to be dramatically different from those employed today. The International Energy Agency, for example, is studying technologies and policies that within 50 years might provide global energy systems with net emissions of carbon dioxide near zero. The study suggests the ambitious goal is possible only by accelerating research and development on carbon-emission-avoiding resource technology combinations, pursuing multiple technology pathways rather than depending on any single solution, and paying particular attention to expediting the difficult transition from one energy system to another.

Busy street in an overcrowded Asian city.
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Although the challenges are daunting, for industrialized nations the most cost-effective solutions currently focus on energy efficiency improvements. In the early 1990s, the "grand old man" of China's coal industry observed: "We can do far more to reduce our need for coal by improving energy system efficiency than by switching to other energy sources." In most countries, opportunities abound to improve the efficiency of buildings, building equipment, industry, and electricity systems. In industrialized nations, the transportation sector is an opportunity as well. Because the economies in some of these countries are growing rapidly, viable environmental progress could be made with a focus on efficiency standards for new construction and equipment rather than on expensive retrofits. In economic terms, many of these investments promise a net return in less than two years through reduced energy consumption.

For a variety of reasons, the United States must take the lead in developing technologies that make possible the opportunities for energy efficiency. The principal growth market for energy technologies and services in coming decades will be in developing countries. If American technologies dominate these markets, the U.S. economy will be the beneficiary. As a corollary benefit, the energy choices of developing countries will dictate trends in the world's environmental emissions. If their energy choices reduce the dependence of their growing economies on emission-intensive energy systems, the result will help make global environmental sustainability more achievable. Perhaps most important, energy policies in developing countries will have a direct impact upon America's political and strategic relationships with the rest of the world.

Even if the solutions are not yet available, the task ahead for the U.S. scientific community is clear. America's laboratories should aggressively develop better-performing, more cost-effective clean energy technologies to meet the needs of domestic and international economies. Using public-private partnerships, these technologies should be demonstrated both at home and abroad to showcase their viability and adapt them to the varying market demands of other countries.

Establishing American leadership in the development and implementation of innovative energy technologies will be a critical test for the U.S. scientific community. As researchers seek technological solutions, they must be aware that the issue of whether nations can provide energy services sufficient to sustain economic growth and political stability will be a dominant challenge to American foreign policy in the decades to come.


—Thomas J. Wilbanks, Environmental Sciences Division, ORNL


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