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Interview with Nobuo Tanaka, Executive Director of the IEA. "We need a global energy revolution"

-Sabina Griffith

Nobuo Tanaka, Executive Director of the International Energy Agency.  (Click to view larger version...)
Nobuo Tanaka, Executive Director of the International Energy Agency.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) acts as energy policy advisor to 27 member countries in their efforts to ensure reliable, affordable and clean energy for their citizens. Founded during the oil crisis of 1973-74, the IEA's initial role was to co-ordinate a world-wide response to oil supply emergencies. On 6 June 2008, IEA Executive Director Nobuo Tanaka launched the "Energy Technology Perspectives 2008". The Agency's leading biennial publication responds to the G8 call on the IEA for guidance on how to achieve a clean, clever and competitive energy future. "There should be no doubt," Tanaka writes in the report. "Meeting the target of a 50% cut in emissions represents a formidable challenge. We would require immediate policy action and technological transition on an unprecedented scale."

ITER: Mr. Tanaka, in the recently issued Energy Technology Perspectives it states that the situation is getting worse in regards to CO2 emissions and oil demand. Can you please describe what that means - in numbers? What future do we face if we continue to do business as usual?

Tanaka: If governments around the world continue with policies in place to date " the underlying premise in the Energy Technology Perspectives 2008 Baseline scenario " CO2 emissions will rise by 130% by 2050. Despite all the attention that is given to renewable energy such as biofuels, wind and solar, the reality is we are still heading towards a fossil fuel future. Oil, natural gas and coal will remain the dominant sources of primary energy worldwide. For example, demand for coal will triple and oil demand will rise by 70% by 2050. These trends are consistent with an eventual increase in average global temperature of up to 6°C. This perspective is unsustainable and difficult to accept, particularly given the highly publicized pledges that have been made by world leaders in recent years to take action to address climate change.

What does the IEA recommend in its report to the G8 in order to reduce emissions and to secure energy for the future?

The first step is to drastically improve energy efficiency. Existing efficiency technologies can sharply reduce energy consumption per unit of GDP, at relatively low or sometimes even negative costs and with a similar or even improved service. We then need to substantially de-carbonise power generation. This can be achieved through renewables, nuclear power, and the capture and storage of CO2 emissions from coal or gas plants. There is a degree of choice, for each country, as to the balance of these technologies that you chose. And finally, we need to make a dramatic reduction in the carbon intensity of transport.

What influence does the IEA have in order to change the system? What do you see as your role?

Following up on an initial request made by G8 leaders at the Gleneagles Summit in 2005, the IEA has conducted an extensive analysis to make concrete recommendations on achieving a clean, clever and competitive energy future. The results have been presented to the G8 summits in St. Petersburg, Heiligendamm and most recently, Toyako. For example, in terms of energy efficiency, we have put forward a set of 25 recommendations across seven priority areas. If implemented globally, they could save around 8.2 gigatonnes (Gt) of CO2 per year by 2030. This is greater than the current energy-related CO2 emissions from the USA and Japan combined. They would also reduce global energy demand by an amount comparable to the total current energy consumption of the USA. It is clear that G8 leaders now recognise the problems we face and understand the goals we need to achieve. We are honoured by the important role the G8 has attributed to the IEA and its expertise to help address the world's energy challenges but it is now for the governments to follow through.

In the "Energy Technology Perspectives 2008" you write that in order to meet the target of a 50% emission cut we would require immediate policy action and technological transition on an unprecedented scale. It will essentially require a new global energy revolution which would completely transform the way we produce and use energy. Can you please explain what you mean by "global energy revolution?"

I have called this a "global energy revolution" because of the immense and sustained level of investment in clean energy technologies that would be needed. For instance we would need to build 17,500 large wind turbines and 32 nuclear power plants every year between now and 2050. The total additional investment required up to 2050 is $45 trillion " about 1.1% of average annual global GDP or, for instance, about the current GDP of Canada. This may seem a modest proportion but, of course, it's a very large sum when considered in the context of national budgets or costs falling on consumers. Included in this sum is a big increase in government spending on energy R&D, which has been in decline in recent years, as well as large deployment programmes for key technologies.

What do you think about fusion energy? How does fusion fit into the plan?

I believe fusion could be one of the major research challenges of the 21st Century. It offers an option to provide environmentally benign energy for the future without depleting natural resources for next generations. Though fusion has historically been a long-term possibility, it is now coming closer with the creation of the ITER project. Although further research and development work needs to be done on materials and on concept improvements, ITER could be the last major step between today&39;s experiments and a demonstration power plant. To support the development of fusion energy, the IEA provides a framework for nine major international collaborative programmes which deal with a broad range of fusion topics including physics, technology, materials, safety, environmental and economic aspects, and social acceptance of fusion power. These allow interested member and non-member governments or other organisations to pool resources and to foster the research, development and deployment in particular areas of interest.


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