London: A future where electricity comes mostly from low-carbon sources is not only feasible in terms of material demand, but will also significantly reduce air pollution, says a study.
"This is the first study that has assembled and scaled up the assessment of individual technologies to the whole world and assessed technology implementation to 2050, taking the environmental impacts of production into account," said Edgar Hertwich from Norwegian University of Science and Technology.
The study is important as little is known about the environmental impact of a widespread global shift to renewable energy technologies such as wind and solar power, and what the effect of this shift might have on material requirements.
Previous studies looked at single issues, such as selected pollutants, or the effects on land use or need for raw materials, such as metals.
Hertwich and his colleagues developed an integrated hybrid life cycle assessment model that allowed the integration of electricity produced by these prospective technologies back into the economic model.
They looked at concentrating solar power, photovoltaics, wind power, hydropower, and gas- and coal-fired power plants with carbon capture and storage (CCS).
The researchers used two different energy scenarios developed by the International Energy Agency to assess how renewable energy would perform.
The first of these was the Baseline scenario, in which global electricity production is assumed to increase by 134 percent between 2007 and 2050, and where fossil fuels maintain their high share in the electricity generation mix, accounting for two-thirds of the total.
The other was the BLUE map scenario assuming electricity demand in 2050 is 13 percent lower than in the Baseline scenario due to increased energy efficiency.
"Energy production-related climate change mitigation targets are achievable, given a slight increase in the demand for iron or cement, as two examples, and will reduce the current emission rates of air pollutants," Thomas Gibon from Norwegian University explained.
Pursuing climate mitigation will limit the human health impacts from air pollution, while continuing with business as usual will increase it, Gibon concluded.
The study appeared in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.