21 December 2013

The transitions of energy research

December 2013. Options Magazine, Winter 2013/2014
In this opinion piece, IIASA Deputy Director General and Deputy Chief Executive Officer Nebojsa Nakicenovic describes how energy research at IIASA evolved from groundbreaking studies in the 1970s to form the foundations of the international energy and decarbonization policy efforts today.

Nebojsa Nakicenovic, Deputy Director of IIASA and Professor of Energy Economics at the Vienan University of Technology, Austria

Nebojsa Nakicenovic, Deputy Director of IIASA and Professor of Energy Economics at the Vienan University of Technology, Austria

Energy research has been a pillar of IIASA ever since the Institute's inception in 1972. IIASA's first major flagship program was a truly global and long-term study of future energy systems which culminated in the publication of Energy in a Finite World in 1981. This study established the need to make a critical transition from a fossil-based global energy system through model-based scenarios and provided the first-ever assessment of the major energy challenges. Over the last three decades, energy research at IIASA has become even more integrated and comprehensive, dealing with all the major global challenges.

IIASA’s energy research continued with major publications such as the Global Energy Perspectives, published in 1998 jointly with the World Energy Council. Indeed, IIASA has made enormous ongoing contributions to the work of the assessment reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and related publications.

In 2011 our energy research was given a new focus in line with IIASA’s latest strategic plan. This expansive research culminated in many publications including the Global Energy Assessment (GEA), coordinated by IIASA and involving 500 leading scientists, energy experts, and policymakers from around the globe. GEA research has informed, among other efforts, the United Nations Sustainable Energy for All (SE4ALL) initiative, which aims to make access to affordable energy services for all a reality by 2030. The SE4All objectives are rooted in GEA pathways and include providing universal access to modern energy, doubling the share of renewable energy globally, and doubling the rate of improvement in energy efficiency—all by 2030. In addition GEA pathways aim to achieve the stabilization of global average temperature
change to 2°C above pre?industrial levels, and to improve energy security.

GEA analysis indicates that achieving these goals would require new dedicated and sustained policies and a rapid transformation to clean energy technologies, translating into an increase in annual investments from present levels of approximately $1.3 trillion to $1.7–2.2 trillion, about 2% of current world GDP. The difference corresponds roughly to the energy subsidies
that currently go mainly to fossil fuel sources, often impeding the needed transformational change.

The goals set by the SE4All objectives are very aspirational but also very achievable. Two important activities, both outcomes of the Rio+20 meeting in 2012, aim to help realize some of these goals. The Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) and the Green Bridge initiative, which IIASA is involved in, aim to achieve full decarbonization of the global energy system and reach the 2°C target, consistent with the GEA objectives.

IIASA remains a central hub for global energy research, supporting the discussions at global forums such as the Vienna Energy Forum, which IIASA co-hosted, and most recently, the 2013 World Energy Congress in Daegu, Korea. Our integrated analyses provide the necessary information for the international policy action needed to transform the world’s energy system.

A major finding of the more recent energy research at IIASA is that some energy options provide multiple benefits. By addressing both energy access and air pollution mitigation together, the costs of achieving each separately could be halved, demonstrating the power of integrated assessments.

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Last edited: 19 March 2014


Nebojsa Nakicenovic

Emeritus Research Scholar

Integrated Assessment and Climate Change Research Group

Energy, Climate, and Environment Program

Transformative Institutional and Social Solutions Research Group

T +43(0) 2236 807 411


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