The growth of coal-burning power plants around the world may be the single greatest challenge to averting dangerous climate change.
Governments and the private sector, meanwhile, are spending too little on research into a partial solution, technology to capture and store such plants' carbon dioxide emissions, the group said.
The study by 15 scientists from 13 nations, "Lighting the Way: Toward a Sustainable Energy Future," was commissioned by the governments of China and Brazil and is the product of two years of workshops organized by the InterAcademy Council, the Amsterdam-based network of national academies of science.
The 174-page report details current and developing technologies, and government incentives and other policies, that could lead both the developed and developing world to clean, affordable and sustainable energy supplies.
"The first thing it says, really, is that conservation and energy efficiency will remain for the next couple of decades the most important thing the world can do to get on a sustainable path," said co-chairman Steven Chu, Nobel Prize-winning physicist and director of California's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
Such steps are urgently needed, the panel said, not only to cut back emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases blamed for global warming, but also to extend basic energy services to 2 billion poor people worldwide and reduce the potential for international conflict over energy resources.
The report took note of the growing role of coal-fired power plants in some countries, "despite increased scientific certainty and growing concern about climate change."
China expects to open one new coal-fired plant per week over the next five years. In the United States, plans for more than 150 new coal plants have been announced since the late 1990s, although some recently have been scrapped or delayed because of climate and other concerns.
European and U.S. scientists and engineers are working to develop capture-and-storage technologies, whereby power plants' carbon-dioxide emissions might be sequestered long-term in abandoned oil wells or other underground cavities. But the InterAcademy Council panel said such work is poorly financed.
"Some would argue this is an absolutely cornerstone policy with currently inadequate investment and attention," panelist Ged Davis, a British energy economist, told reporters in a teleconference Monday.
The report noted public investment worldwide in energy research and development was estimated at US$9 billion in 2005. That should be at least doubled, it said, and there should be "worldwide introduction of price signals for carbon emissions," to push future public and private investment in a carbon-saving direction.
Under the Kyoto Protocol, which requires emissions reductions by industrialized nations, the European Union operates a "carbon price" system whereby industries not using up their quotas can sell allowances to others that overshoot their quotas. The United States rejects the idea of such mandatory emissions cutbacks.
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