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Atmospheric Sciences & Global Change
Research Highlights

January 2009

Paying Less to Tackle Climate Change

Advanced technologies could make climate stabilization better, faster, and cheaper

Graphic: Universal Parsing Agent (UPA)
Wind energy is one of the advanced technologies that could significantly reduce the cost of restricting carbon emissions by 2095. Enlarged View

Despite widespread agreement about the importance of technology in addressing climate change, concern and questions remain regarding the costs and timing of large-scale technology deployment. A new set of climate scenarios produced by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory reaffirms how a mix of advanced technologies could significantly reduce the costs of stabilizing the global climate over the 21st century. The team studied technologies for improving energy supply and efficiency, including fossil and biomass, carbon dioxide capture and storage, solar, wind, geothermal, hydrogen, nuclear, and hydroelectric, as well as energy reduction technologies.

The results showed that as better technologies continue to be developed and adopted over time, climate stabilization efforts will move faster, cost less, and be more effective. "The more technologies that can successfully be used to address the problem, the lower the overall cost of doing so will be," said Dr. Leon Clarke of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, who led the research. "Reducing greenhouse gas emissions will require a comprehensive approach, including multiple technologies and global cooperation, and there is no silver-bullet technology," he added.

This work improved on past scenario analyses by exploring a more realistic, wide range of possible technological combinations within a consistent framework. The analysis also used more sophisticated representations of energy demands in buildings, industry, and transportation than past PNNL scenario analyses, as well as better representations of renewable energy sources. The model also balanced biofuel demand against the need to retain cropland and expand forests. This richer set of scenarios is valuable for decision makers, who require a comprehensive understanding of how technology could evolve, the uncertainties involved, and the interactions between technologies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The Climate Change Technology Program, which informs federal decision making on climate technology development and policy, is using these scenarios and findings as part of its strategic planning activities. 

Why it matters: Greenhouse gas concentrations must be stabilized to slow down climate change. To do so will require fundamental changes in how the world creates and consumes energy and manages the industrial, agricultural, and land-use sectors of the global economy. New and improved technologies could significantly reduce the financial burden of these changes.

Methods: Scientists used PNNL's computer-based MiniCAM model to explore the potential economic benefits of using advanced technologies to stabilize carbon dioxide levels. The model simulates the economic, energy, climate, and terrestrial systems under various climate change policies and mitigation technology options. The resulting scenarios showed cost and technology options for stabilizing atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations by 2095. Scenarios are "what-ifs"-or sketches of potential future conditions-for use in decision-making exercises or analysis.

What's next: Modeling and scenario development will continue to help decision makers understand the role of technology in addressing climate change. Important areas of continuing research include U.S. and international policy options, and the interactions between bioenergy, terrestrial carbon emissions, the energy system, and the global agricultural system.

Acknowledgments: PNNL is transforming the nation's ability to predict climate change and its impacts. This research was conducted by PNNL staff primarily from the Joint Global Change Research Institute, a collaboration between PNNL and the University of Maryland. Researchers included Leon Clarke, Marshall Wise, Jae Edmonds, Page Kyle, Kate Calvin, Son Kim, and Steven Smith at the Institute, and Marylynn Placet at Battelle Washington Operations, all of PNNL. This work was funded under the U.S. Climate Change Technology Program, which is led by the U.S. Department of Energy and carried out by 12 federal agencies.

Reference: Clarke L., M. Wise, J. Edmonds, M. Placet, P. Kyle, K. Calvin, S. Kim, and S. Smith. 2008. CO2 Emissions Mitigation and Technological Advance: An Updated Analysis of Advanced Technology Scenarios. PNNL-18075, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Richland, Washington.

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