An exhaustive global study has found that climate change is set to drive up energy demand significantly by 2050, suggesting policymakers and the energy industry need to take action now to prevent a surge in energy related costs over the next few decades.

The research, which was conducted by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis and published today in the journal Nature Communications, found that rising temperatures as a result of climate change would see energy demands climb significantly higher than from just population and income growth alone.

Using analysis of temperature projections from 21 different climate models and economic and population projections from five distinct scenarios, the researchers determined that energy demand around the world would grow by at least 11% – but potentially far more – as a result of climate change.

Under climate change projections that see modest warming ahead, energy demand is set to rise between 11% and 27% by 2050. However, under vigorous warming projections this is set to be between 25% and 58%.

Climate change and energy demand: Why a rise is expected

The expected increase in energy demand as a result of climate change is because global temperatures are going to make artificial cooling systems increasingly essential to daily life in many parts of the world.

“An important way in which society will adapt to rising temperatures from climate change is by increasing cooling during hot seasons and decreasing heating during cold seasons,” said study co-author Enrica de Cian, from the Ca’ Foscari University of Venice and the Euro-Mediterranean Center on Climate Change (CMCC).

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“Changes in space conditioning directly impact energy systems, as firms and households demand less natural gas, petroleum, and electricity to meet lower heating needs, and more electricity to satisfy higher cooling needs.”

This means that energy demands are likely to grow more sharply in some areas of the world where temperature increases are expected to be more pronounced or take average temperatures over an acceptable threshold. This includes areas of the tropics, as well as the US, China and southern Europe.

The problem for climate change mitigation

The findings present a potential problem for ongoing efforts to mitigate climate change.

Many of the energy generation technologies in use today still rely on fossil fuels, and so are currently contributing to climate change. As demand increases, many regions could see their reliance on such technologies grow, and so further contribute to the phenomenon.

It is therefore essential that governments and the energy industry take such findings into account to prepare for growing demand using renewable technologies.

“If energy use rises and leads to additional emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases, increased energy consumption for space conditioning could make it more difficult and costly to mitigate future warming,” said study co-author Ian Sue Wing, a researcher at Boston University.

“Quantifying this risk requires understanding how the demand for energy by different types of consumers in different climates will be affected by warming. The results of our study can in the future be used to calculate how energy market dynamics will ultimately determine changes in energy consumption and emissions.”

Implications for the world’s poorest

Of course, while those who can afford and have access to power will rely on cooling systems, many will not be so fortunate – indicating a need to not only ensure that renewable power is available around the world, but that it remains affordable.

“The lower the level of income per person, the larger the share of income that families need to spend to adapt to a given increase in energy demand,” said study lead author Bas van Ruijven, a researcher with the IIASA Energy Program.

“Some scenarios in our study assume continued population growth and in those cases temperature increases by 2050 could expose half a billion people in the lowest-income countries in the Middle-East and Africa to increases in energy demand of 25% or higher.

“The poor face challenges to adaptation that are not only financial – in areas that have unreliable electricity supplies, or lack grid connections altogether, increased exposure to hot days increases the risk of heat-related illnesses and mortality.”

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