Over the last few years the International Energy Agency has consistently warned we need a Bold change of direction globally to meet climate commitments. Scientific studies show that we need to peak emissions this decade to meet 2 °C temperature goal.
With the launch of the IEA latest report - Redrawing the Energy-Climate Map - the organisation outlined four stopgap measures that can be taken to lower global energy-related greenhouse-gas emissions in the short term by 2020 to make limiting global warming to 2 °C still achievable.
These measures are:
- Targeted energy efficiency measures in buildings, industry and transport could account for nearly half the emissions reduction in 2020, with the additional investment required being more than offset by reduced spending on fuel bills.
- Limiting the construction and use of the least-efficient coal-fired power plants would deliver more than 20% of the emissions reduction and helps curb local air pollution. The share of power generation from renewables increases (from around 20% today to 27% in 2020), as does that from natural gas.
- Actions to halve expected methane (a potent greenhouse gas) releases into the atmosphere from the upstream oil and gas industry in 2020 provide 18% of the savings.
- Implementing a partial phase-out of fossil fuel consumption subsidies accounts for 12% of the reduction in emissions and supports efficiency efforts. According to the IEA assessment fossil fuel subsidies were equivalent to an incentive of $110 per tonne of CO2.
"We identify a set of proven measures that could stop the growth in global energy-related emissions by the end of this decade at no net economic cost," said IEA Chief Economist Fatih Birol, the report's lead author. "Rapid and widespread adoption could act as a bridge to further action, buying precious time while international climate negotiations continue."
The United Nations climate negotiations have set the goal of a binding treaty to be ready and signed in 2015, with the agreement coming into effect in 2020. But scientists have repeatedly warned that to avoid dangerous climate change and stay within the widely agreed 2 °C limit on global warming, swift action this decade is critical for reducing emissions.
UNFCCC Executive Secretary Chritiana Figueres welcomed the report from Bonn and said in a statement:
"The IEA report comes at a crucial moment for the UN Climate Change negotiations and for global efforts to address climate change at all levels. Once again we are reminded that there is a gap between current efforts and the engagement necessary to keep the world below a two degrees Celsius temperature rise. Once again we are reminded that the gap can be closed this decade, using proven technologies and known policies, and without harming economic growth in any region of the world. By seizing the opportunities described in the report, businesses and governments at all levels can catalyze limate action and open the political space for a universal climate agreement."
"Climate change has quite frankly slipped to the back burner of policy priorities. But the problem is not going away – quite the opposite,” IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven said. “This report shows that the path we are currently on is more likely to result in a temperature increase of between 3.6 °C and 5.3 °C but also finds that much more can be done to tackle energy-sector emissions without jeopardising economic growth, an important concern for many governments."
The report also highlighted regional differences in current emissions. In the United States, a switch from coal to gas in power generation helped reduce emissions by 200 million tonnes (Mt), bringing them back to the level of the mid-1990s. China experienced the largest growth in CO2 emissions (300 Mt), but the increase was one of the lowest it has seen in a decade, driven by the deployment of renewables and improvements in energy intensity. Despite increased coal use in some countries, emissions in Europe declined by 50 Mt. Emissions in Japan increased by 70 Mt.
While renewables are still on the rise, investment fell by 11 per cent during 2012. Even so, the report highlighted that "Installed wind power capacity increased by 19% in 2012, to reach 282 gigawatts (G ), with China, the United States, Germany, Spain and India having the largest capacity"
Developing countries are also increasing renewables based energy production. In the last year Sub-Saharan Africa's first commercial wind farm came online, in Ethiopia.
The report described: "India has stated a goal of reaching 55 GW of non-hydro renewable capacity by 2017. Pakistan published its National Climate Change Strategy in September 2012, which, among other things, gives preferential status to hydropower and commits to promote other renewable energy resources (Pakistan Ministry of Climate Change, 2012). In 2012, Bangladesh passed specific legislation to promote the production and use of green energy. South Africa aims to reach 35 GW of solar by 2030."
Energy Sector and climate adaptation
The energy sector is the largest single source of carbon emissions and must be the source for a major part of the emissions reductions. With increasing extreme weather events, changes in rainfall and sea level rise, energy infrastructure will also be impacted by climate change in multiple ways. The report describes:
"Some of the impacts will be gradual, as a long-term increase in global temperature brings about a rise in sea level, greater water scarcity in some regions and changes in precipitation patterns. Energy demand patterns will change (such as for heating and cooling), power plant cooling and efficiency will be affected, as will hydropower output, and coastal infrastructure (including refineries, liquefied natural gas (LNG) plants and power plants) will be threatened (Figure 3.1). For example, in the United States alone nearly 300 energy facilites are located within 1.2 metres of high tide (Strauss and iemlinski, 2012). Other impacts of climate change are likely to be more sudden and destructive, with extreme weather events, such as tropical cyclones, heat waves and floods, expected to increase in intensity and frequency. Cyclones can damage electricity grids and threaten or severely disrupt offshore oil and gas platforms, wind farms and coastal refineries. Heat waves and cold spells will impact upon peak load energy demand, putting greater stress on grid infrastructure and undermining the ability of power plants to operate at optimum efficiency. Gradual and sudden climate impacts can also interact, such as a sea level rise and more powerful storms combining to increase storm surges. Furthermore, disruptions to the energy system caused by climate events can have significant knock-on effects on other critical services, such as communications, transport and health."
Climate change will also impact renewable energy infrastructure. Changing rainfall patterns, drought, and timing of mountain snow spring melt will impact hydropower in many regions. Wind and solar generators will be subject to damage from extreme weather events.
Adaptation and resilience will need to be built in to energy infrastructure. The more we are able to mitigate carbon emissions in this decade, the less we will need to spend on energy infrastructure adaptation in the future.
"Strong action to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions will reduce the need to invest in climate adaptation but will not eliminate it. Even a global average temperature rise of 2 °C is going to demand some adaptation. Unless the resilience of our energy system to climate change is considered more explicitly, energy supply and transformation will be exposed to greater physical risks, which will increase capital, maintenance and insurance costs, impair energy supply reliability and accelerate the deprecia on and deterioration of assets."
The world is slowly moving to replace high carbon emission fossil fuels with alternatives. But as this report states clearly, we still have a huge mountain to climb in converting to low carbon intensive economies and minimising the disruptive impacts of dangerous climate change. Four fifths of the total volume of carbon emissions (550 gigatonnes Gt CO2) that the energy sector is allowed to emit under a 2°C trajectory up to 2035 are already locked-in assuming the assets are used to their full economic life and not retired early.
Unburnable Carbon and Stranded Assets
The report warns on the risk of stranded energy infrastructure assets, and stranded fossil fuel reserves and resources. The Carbon tracker Initiative and the Grantham Research Institute have highlighted in their recent report - Unburnable carbon 2013: Wasted capital and stranded assets - of the carbon bubble in companies invested in exploration and development of fossil fuels, given the carbon budget to limit climate change to the 2 degree C level.
In Australia coal reserves are already more than double their market share of the precautionary global carbon budget for coal. But still Australian companies spent an estimated AU$6 billion on finding and developing more coal reserves, according to the report released by Carbon Tracker in association with Australia's Climate Institute called Unburnable Carbon - Australia's carbon bubble (PDF)
In a statement on the IEA special report Professor Nicholas Stern said:
"...the International Energy Agency has identified four clear, strong and credible policy measures which make sense for both the economy and the climate. Given that many rich countries are facing sluggish economic growth, governments should recognise the significant benefits of providing consistent policies that incentivise investments in new clean energy technologies instead of old, dirty and inefficient ones.
"Government-induced policy risk from lack of clarity on energy and climate policy is, in many parts of the world, a major deterrent to long-term investment. This is surely unacceptable at a time of idle resources, low interest rates, strong liquidity within much of the private sector, the attractive medium-term prospects for low-carbon growth and a climate at great risk. The Agency has also warned of the dangers of locking in fossil fuel infrastructure, which would need to be retired early, at great additional cost, in order to meet the 2°C target."
"The Agency’s message is crystal clear: dither and delay in making the transition to a low-carbon energy system will be risky and expensive."
- International Energy Agency (IEA) media release, 10 June 2013 - Four energy policies can keep the 2 °C climate goal alive
- International Energy Agency (IEA), 10 June 2013 World Energy Outlook Special Report, Redrawing the Energy-Climate Map (PDF)
- Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, media release 10 June 2013 - Statement by Nicholas Stern about new report by International Energy Agency
- UNFCCC media alert, 10 June 2013 Statement by UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres. (PDF)
- Graphic images Courtesy IEA from Special report presentation slides (PDF)