Scale and System Influences

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One of the more challenging aspects of the need to respond to the environmental impacts of climate mitigation strategies is scale. Most of the consequences that have been evaluated so far have been largely based on only a very limited range of experience and at a handful of locations. Although the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is evaluating some of these impacts, such as how air quality and climate are linked, such evaluations are scarce [7]. Like mitigating GHG emissions

3 It must be noted that the amount of CO2 reductions required must also consider estimates of the desired levels of CO2 in the atmosphere in combination with current concentrations and the projected levels if no mitigation actions are taken.

themselves, a critical factor is the scale of adoption. It is unclear how widespread adoption of climate change mitigation approaches will impact the environment, based on measurements at a few plants or on estimates from modeling studies. Again, biofuels offers a good example of the issues of scale. When U.S. bio-ethanol production was on the order of just 1-2 billion gallons per year, it was not an issue of scientific or policy debate. That level of production, even with corn as a feedstock, was largely sustainable (although it did not provide a significant GHG mitigation impact). As policies changed and set goals of 20 times that level of production, it became evident that such an increase could result in significant environmental problems globally.

To be effective in minimizing the rate of global temperature increase, the various approaches must be implemented nationally and globally at an accelerated rate. The IEA BLUE Map scenario (which would cut projected GHG emissions in 2050 by 50% relative to 2005 emissions) evaluated in the recent IEA Energy Technology Perspectives report estimates that, each year, 17.5 GW of new coal-fired power plants with CCS, 32 GW of new nuclear plants, 5 GW of biomass-burning power plants, 14,000 new wind turbines, and 215 million m2 of solar PV panels will need to be installed to achieve the targeted GHG reduction goals [4]. Although these estimates are global, it is clear that the level of plant and infrastructure construction and introduction of new technologies is significantly higher than our existing regulatory systems have had to address in the past. Indeed, it is arguably a larger technical change than has happened in human history, particularly in terms of the fraction of the global population that will potentially be affected. The rate and magnitude of these changes will result in numerous environmental challenges, both foreseen and unpredicted.

In addition, to a much greater extent than conventional pollution mitigation strategies, mitigation of GHG emissions and the impacts of those mitigation strategies, will cut across economic sectors and geographical regions. It is imperative, then, to recognize and understand how specific technological, behavioral, and economic changes may have impacts beyond the point at which mitigation approaches are applied. For instance, if natural gas is used in substantial amounts to displace coal for electricity generation, the resulting increase in prices of both natural gas (due to increased demand) and electricity (due to higher generating costs) could result in industries turning to coal as a less expensive primary energy source. The net reduction of GHG emissions may therefore be less than originally estimated if such interactions are not considered, and local and regional air quality could be adversely impacted if appropriate steps are not taken to prevent increased emissions.

Additional environmental impacts are likely to be associated with changes to the energy infrastructure that will be needed to effectively utilize renewable and intermittent energy sources such as wind and solar. More transmission lines will be needed to transport energy from high-wind areas (which can shift over the course of a year or even a day) to locations where electricity demand is high. Additional pipelines may be needed to transport biofuels from relatively dispersed conversion plants to urban areas where fuel demand is greatest. Intermittent energy sources are also likely to need increased energy storage and recovery systems to address the potential differences in electricity production and consumption peaks; these systems may also have their own environmental impacts.

As we utilize material that we now consider wastes as feedstocks for other production processes, material transport patterns are likely to change, resulting in changes in emission patterns. In general, it is unlikely that 100% of waste material will be economically viable as process feedstocks, at least in the near term. Thus, the remaining wastes, although reduced in volume, may well be more difficult to process or dispose of in safe and environmentally sound ways.

The global nature of the problem and the interconnections of modern energy and economic systems will result in environmental impacts beyond the boundaries of any single locality, state, or nation. It is imperative that the international impacts on land use, energy use, and material production, all of which have implications for the environment, be evaluated and recognized during development of GHG mitigation strategies.

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