Existing and future technologies


Existing and future technologies
There is a range of opinion as to the readiness of existing technologies to reduce emissions. While
presenting a range of views, one of the more optimistic conclusions is that of the IPCC, which in the Third
Assessment Report, completed in 2001, concluded: “… Known technological options could achieve a
broad range of atmospheric stabilisation levels, such as 550 ppm, 450 ppm or below over the next 100
years or more… Known technological options refer to technologies that exist in operation or pilot plant
stage today. It does not include any new technologies that will require drastic technological
breakthroughs…” Other recent publications, while having less standing than the IPCC, emphasize the
difficulties. For example Hoffert et al. (2002) criticised the IPCC’s conclusion as representing a
“misperception of technological readiness.” They instead conclude that there is a need to intensify
research on such technologies – a need they suggest is by no means universally appreciated.
Notwithstanding these differences, there is widespread agreement that known technological options exist in
energy production, conversion and end-use that could reduce emissions significantly from their businessas-usual trends in the short term and thus be compatible with relatively low levels of concentrations. 

this set of technologies, the problem is not development, but how to efficiently disseminate these
technologies in all countries. A successful solution to this challenge will likely only emerge with
significant reductions in the cost and penetration of existing technologies, as well as the development of
new technologies.
Numerous carbon-free technologies already exist. Light water nuclear reactors, wind turbines,
concentrating solar and biomass-fuelled power plants, biofuels, photovoltaics are industrial realities1
Important technical improvements will still be required, however, to deal with physical and, ultimately,
cost constraints. And in many cases, these improvements may be more than incremental: for example, the
future of nuclear power may rest entirely with new reactors that could be safer, save resources, produce
less hazardous waste and prevent proliferation2
The intermittent character of many renewable energy technologies – and costs (for PV at least) – will limit
wind or PV expansion (PV today costs more than ten times electricity generated from coal). Concentrating
solar plants producing around the clock (using heat storage instead of fossil fuel back-up) might be built in
the coming years – but do not exist today. Carbon-free hydrogen production exists on paper, as do
hydrogen-fuelled cars and planes – but there is a long road and significant technological challenges
between today’s dreams and future realities (Appert, 2003). While in the future, hydrogen from renewable
or nuclear power might become an option (Barreto et al., 2003), in the near to middle term (possibly up to
2050) renewables would more efficiently replace fossil fuels in the power sector than in the transport
sector (Eyre et al., 2002; Azar et al., 2003).
It would be a mistake, however, to believe that technical progress, 

by itself, always tends to reduce CO2
and other greenhouse gas emissions. There are numerous examples where technical progress may not
necessarily do so; in fact it may even increase or prolong emissions. In the last decades, technical progress
has significantly reduced costs in exploration and exploitation of oil and gas. Inasmuch as this has
displaced some coal use, it has helped mitigate climate change. However, where it has displaced nuclear
power, energy efficiency efforts or renewable energy sources, it has contributed to increasing greenhouse
gas emissions.
The current technological portfolio is unlikely to allow reaching the ultimate objective of the Convention,
unless the willingness-to-pay is extremely high3
. Moreover, short-term decisions in this arena might have
large long-term implications – and different cost implications for achieving similar concentration levels.
Finally, technology change tends to be cumulative rather than resulting from single major shifts. All these
factors combine to make the technology dimension of climate change mitigating policies critical in any
future effort to meet the Convention’s stabilisation objective.

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