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Green Energy Choices

The Benefits, Risks and Trade-Offs of Low-Carbon Technologies for Electricity Production

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Rising energy demand and efforts to combat climate change require a significant increase in low-carbon electricity generation. Yet, concern has been raised that rapid investment in some novel technologies could cause a new set of environmental problems. The report of the International Resource Panel (IRP) Green Energy Choices: The Benefits, Risks and Trade-Offs of Low-Carbon Technologies for Electricity Production aims to support policy-makers in making informed decision about energy technologies, infrastructures and optimal mix. The findings of the report show that, compared to coal, electricity generated by hydro, wind, solar and geothermal power can bring substantial reductions in greenhouse gases emissions (by more than 90%), and also of pollutants harmful to human health and ecosystems (by 60-90%). The capture and storage of CO2 from fossil fuel power plants will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 70%, but increase the pollution damaging human health and ecosystems by 5-80%. The key to sound energy decisions lies in selecting the right mix of technologies according to local or regional circumstances and putting in place safeguard procedures to mitigate and monitor potential impacts. This demands careful assessment of various impacts of different alternatives, so as to avoid the unintended negative consequences, and to achieve the most desirable mix of environmental, social and economic benefits.

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Method description

This report presents an assessment of the impact of key power plant technologies on human health, ecosystem health, and resources, using a life cycle approach. Life cycle assessments were conducted using an integrated model capable of modelling impacts on a regionally disaggregated level, thereby reflecting region-specific technologies in the nine regions of the International Energy Agency (IEA) Energy Technology Perspectives (ETP) model (IEA, 2010). The total emissions resulting from the widespread implementation of the assessed low carbon technologies were assessed by combining the life cycle inventories (LCI) produced in this assessment with the deployment foreseen in the IEA ETP BLUE Map scenario (IEA 2010), which is consistent with the goal of limiting global warming to 2°C. We compared the resulting global emissions rates and resource use with a deployment of energy technologies foreseen in the IEA ETP Baseline scenario. This chapter presents a description of the general procedure and the methods employed in this study. A more detailed description is available in the literature (Gibon et al., 2015).

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