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NFCRC Tutorial: Trends

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The world is running out of cheap energy such as oil and natural gas that allowed rapid industrialization in some nations, and its capacity to withstand the environmental impact of burning coal as a substitute. Moving to a more expensive and less polluting energy source is required and the related issues need resolved globally because these issues effect everyone. In the past, industrialized societies were more concerned with insufficient supply of energy rather than its cost. However, with the sudden increase in oil prices in the '70s, the emphasis changed while the environmental and sociopolitical costs of energy came to be recognized also in the '70s, resulting in energy seeming to be costlier from both supply and use sides.

It is uncertain whether this trend will sustain itself in the '90s, but its importance can be realized by considering the large growth in world's population and its per capita energy use. For example, if the oil and gas consumption are allowed to grow unchecked, within 30 to 40 years 80% of these resources will be depleted. Coal, solar and nuclear energy are more abundant but require more involved and expensive conversions into electricity or liquid fuels.

There are both external and internal costs brought about by the finiteness of the earth's capacity to withstand the environmental impacts. External costs are associated with environmental disruptions on society but are not reflected by the monetary values assigned to energy. Internal costs are costs due to measures such as pollution control equipment to reduce the external costs. External costs have been rising despite a substantial increase in the internal costs (e.g.. in the U.S. the costs of supplying petroleum have increased by 25% while costs of generating electricity have risen by 40% over the past 20 years). The external costs are difficult to quantify but civilization depends heavily on regulating water supply, controlling pests and pathogens and maintaining a tolerable climate. Climate governs most of environmental processes on which our well being depends and global climatic changes brought about by greenhouse gases could be devastating. The other major danger to public health is particulates from the SO2 emissions. Fixing these external costs for coal will add about 30% to the cost of energy.

The CO2 problem may be postponed by switching to natural gas but at huge costs. Nuclear energy is less disruptive on the climate but requires development of much safer reactors and management of nuclear wastes. Solar energy is clearly the long-term solution from a standpoint of minimizing the external costs but at the present time remains too expensive. The near term solution is to transition into low impact energy supply technologies (without disrupting economic growth) and increase end use efficiency. If the energy consumption in the developing countries increases to near that of the developed countries per capita, CO2 and other pollutants would effect both locally and globally on a scale much larger than ever experienced. Climate change could have profound disruptions especially for the Southern Hemisphere nations which would also effect the Northern Hemisphere nations since we are all connected by trade etc. Thus, international cooperation in energy research in the areas of long-term alternatives is crucial.

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