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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Long-run energy resource economics : reconciling uncertain carbon signals for integrated assessments of global environmental change Ritchie, William Justin


Studies of global environmental change require a long-term perspective that must contend with uncertain future human and Earth system processes. In this context, the scientific community frames possibilities for energy resource use with integrated assessment models (IAMs). IAMs combine various threads of scientific knowledge to allow systematic studies of hypothetical socioeconomic and technological developments. Engineering-focused IAMs maintain economic concepts of energy use initiated by studies which responded to the 1970s energy crises by anticipating that growing demand for energy could rely on a coal backstop supply. Thus, many scenarios of vast coal combustion were produced to illustrate this outlook, where humanity had no choice but to become “the intelligent mole”. Such coal backstop scenarios played an important role in early climate model development because they provided a strong carbon signal. Initial economic models of climate policy costs were based on assuming that the high-carbon backstop would always be cheaper than the low-carbon backstop. These ideas anchored expectations for future climate change as the IPCC assessment process was established, and continue to shape the uncertainty range considered by today’s studies. This thesis examines modeling concepts used to structure uncertain energy resource developments for long-term studies of global environmental change with a special focus on coal. The concept of a vast coal backstop energy supply is evaluated and these findings are applied to develop empirical constraints for an IAM coal supply curve. In the example considered by this thesis, an empirically consistent coal backstop scenario produces climate policy costs for a 1.5°C target equivalent to those for a 2°C goal that must overcome a vast coal backstop supply: the default configuration of many IAMs. An energy system phase space method is developed to map whether these long-run scenarios provide sufficient coverage of future uncertainties. It is found that IAM scenarios are needlessly constrained to produce outlooks for transitions toward a global energy supply with increasing carbon intensity. When these energy system scenarios are combined with socioeconomic projections for global per-capita income convergence, they serve to reproduce a style of reasoning that links aspirational equity goals with worst-case environmental consequences.

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