Science & Technology in Action

13th Edition

The transition to a low carbon future


Energy is a defining feature of modern life. Whether as individuals, communities or economies we depend on convenient, reliable and affordable energy. With growing world population and economic development, more energy is required but we must fi nd more sustainable ways of producing it.

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Lesson excerpt

What is ‘a low carbon future’?

In December 2015 the Irish Government published a white paper entitled Ireland’s Transition to a Low Carbon Energy Future 2015-2030. It stated: “Our vision of a low carbon energy system means that greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the energy sector will be reduced by between 80% and 95%, compared to 1990 levels, by 2050, and will fall to zero or below by 2100.” (p.7)

Where are we now?

At present about 88% of the country’s energy requirement comes from fossil fuels: coal, peat, oil and gas. To different extents they produce carbon dioxide (CO2) when they are burned. At the beginning of the Industrial Revolution (ca. 1760) the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere was 275 ppm. The level has recently risen to 410 ppm. This excess of carbon dioxide has been a major contributor to a global temperature rise of about 0.8°C over the same period and change in ocean pH from 8.18 to 8.07. This pH change represents a 29% increase in ocean acidity (10−8.07 / 10−8.18 = 1.288). We must now endeavour to reverse these trends. Can this be done without damaging the economy?

The White Paper (Irish Government)

The White Paper (Ireland’s Transition to a Low Carbon Energy Future 2015-2030) takes into account European and International climate change objectives and agreements, as well as Irish social, economic and employment priorities. Ireland has set a target of a 20% improvement in energy efficiency by 2020. While the target is not binding, implementation of a range of measures set out in the 2012 Energy Efficiency Directive is obligatory. In 2014, Ireland was almost halfway (8-9%) to achieving its 2020 target. Ambitious EU-wide targets have also been set for the reduction of GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions, relative to 1990 levels. (See Table). Ireland’s energy policy as described in the white paper addresses three core objectives: sustainability, security of supply, and competitiveness. A low carbon future will involve: • becoming more energy efficient • generating our electricity from renewable sources • moving to fuels with lower emissions (e.g. moving from peat and coal to gas), and ultimately away from fossil fuels altogether • increasing our use of electricity and bioenergy for heat and transport • improving the take-up of low carbon vehicles (electric and gas) • adopting new technologies as they emerge. These changes will require that we radically change our behaviour as citizens, communities, industry and government.

True or False?

  1. At present about 50% of the country’s energy requirement comes from fossil fuels. true
  2. Combustion of natural gas produces less CO2 per unit of energy than coal or oil. true
  3. An increase in atmospheric CO2 reduces the pH of the sea below 7. false
  4. Ireland has set a target of a 20% improvement in energy efficiency by 2020. true
  5. Globally, 25% of electricity is generated using coal. false
  6. Combustion of natural gas produces much lower amounts of sulfur dioxide and other pollutants than coal or oil. true
  7. Globally more energy will be required in the future. true
  8. Even if we achieve zero carbon emissions global temperature is still expected to rise 2–3 °C by 2100 true
  9. By 2050 50% of the world’s population will live in cities. false
  10. Ireland has a target of a 20% improvement in energy efficiency by 2020. true

Glossary of terms

a measure of the quantity or concentration of acid
in general, energy derived from harvested plants
typically, material of biological origin that can be used directly or indirectly as a fuel
Carbon capture and storage
a process in which carbon dioxide resulting from combustion, is not released into the atmosphere but is captured for storage (typically deep underground)
the ability to compete with other countries or companies in terms of price and quality
Emissions trading system
an EU system whereby companies can buy limited amounts of international credits from emission-saving projects around the world if they exceed their assigned greenhouse gas limit (or 'cap')
Energy efficiency
the ratio of the energy output to the energy input, usually expressed as a percentage
Energy intensity
a measure of the energy efficiency of an economy; units of energy per unit of GDP
Energy sector
the sector of industry that generates energy (usually as heat or electricity)
Flue gases
Gases that are conveyed to the atmosphere via a flue
Greenhouse gas
compounds of the atmosphere that contribute to the greenhouse effect by absorbing terrestrial radiation
Gross domestic product
GDP; a measure of the economic performance of a country; the value of all the final goods and services produced by a country
Kilograms of oil equivalent
containing the same amount of energy (on combustion) as a kilogram of oil
light emitting diode; a solid state electric light source
megawatt; a measure of power; a million watts
Natural gas
gas obtained from natural oil or gas reservoirs; mostly methane but generally mixed with other gases such as of ethane, butane, propane, carbon dioxide, nitrogen, helium and hydrogen sulfide
various oxides of nitrogen; mainly nitrous oxide, nitrogen monoxide and nitrogen dioxide
a measure of the acidity or basicity of an aqueous solution; pH values are generally in the range 0 to 14, where 0 is a strong acid, 7 is neutral and 14 is a strong base. Negative values are possible; commercial HCl has a pH of about -1.1. Saturated NaOH has a pH of about 15.
A substance which acts as a contaminant, adversely altering the physical, chemical, or biological properties of the environment.
parts per million
photovoltaic cells/installation; generation of electricity directly from sunlight
Security of supply
an indication of how reliable the supply (e.g. of oil or gas)
sulfur dioxide; an acidic oxide soluble in water making it acidic
Sulfur dioxide
SO2: A poisonous gas produced from the burning of sulfur or sulfur compounds. Also released in volcanic eruptions.
the long term ability of a system to continue operating
using a resource that can be renewed
White paper
an official government proposal or report on an issue.