New IEA report sets a road map to a cleaner energy future

Today, the International Energy Agency released a special report of its World Energy Outlook, entitled Redrawing the Energy-Climate Map. The report is notable not only for its substantive conclusions – but for what it signifies.

First, the substance:

The report starts by emphasizing that energy-related CO2 emissions are a crucial driver of global warming, that they are increasing rapidly, and that as a result the world is not on target to keep concentrations of greenhouse gases below the level that would provide even a fifty-percent probability of limiting the increase in average global temperatures to two degrees – a commonly cited benchmark to prevent the worst impacts of climate change.  Standard fare, perhaps – but noteworthy nonetheless coming from the world’s leading energy authority.

A road map toward a more secure future

The key finding of the report — what makes it required reading — is the analysis of what the IEA calls its “4-for-2˚C scenario.”

The IEA identifies a package of four policies that could keep the door open to 2 degrees through 2020 – at no net economic cost to any individual region or major country, and relying only on existing, widely available technologies:

  1. Specific energy efficiency measures in transport, buildings, and industry (1.5 GT savings in 2020/49% of the total package)
  2. Limiting construction and use of the least-efficient coal-fired power plants (640 MT/21%)
  3. Minimizing methane emissions from upstream oil and gas production (550 MTCO2e/18%)
  4. Accelerating the partial phaseout of fossil fuel subsidies (360 MT/12%)

The IEA estimates that these four measures would reduce energy-related GHG emissions by 3.1 GT CO2-eq in 2020, relative to IEA's "New Policies" reference scenario – corresponding to 80% of the reduction required to be on a 2-degree path.

Take a look at this chart, from IEA's report, that summarizes the policies:

Here's a second chart, also from IEA's report. This one makes the key point about no net economic costs:

Four policies, using widely available technologies, imposing no net economic cost on any individual region or major country, that put the world in the position to make the turn to climate safety.

That’s the headline.

The cost of delay

IEA's report also discusses the vulnerability of the energy sector to climate change, and emphasizes that delaying climate action will drive up the costs of meeting a 2 degree target later.  The report estimates that putting off action until 2020 would trim near-term investment by $1.5 trillion in the short run – but at the cost of requiring an additional $5 trillion to be spent in subsequent years.  In present-value terms, using a 5% discount rate, delay doubles the cost of action: from $1.2 trillion to $2.3 trillion.

This is an argument that we at EDF — and others — have been making for some time. But it is a crucial one nonetheless – and the IEA analysis gives some added analytical weight to the argument.

Not an oil shock, but a climate shock

These findings are especially welcome coming from IEA, a world-respected authority on energy markets and policy that was founded to facilitate international coordination among oil-consuming countries.  Indeed, the messenger may be nearly as important as the message.  What launched the IEA was the 1973-4 oil crisis.  Now, nearly forty years later, the IEA report makes clear that the real energy-related threat to economic prosperity is not an oil shock, but a climate shock.

Back to the big picture

To be sure, the four policies analyzed in this report won’t fully suffice to address climate change in the long run: indeed, much more ambition will be needed.

Under the “4-for-2˚C” scenario, the IEA estimates that world energy-related emissions will peak and start to decline before 2020 – but we’ll still need concerted action on a global scale to get greenhouse gas emissions onto a steepening downward trajectory.

Take a look at one more chart from IEA's report:

Acknowledging this point, IEA's report underscores the importance of continued innovation in low-carbon technologies in transport and power generation (including carbon capture and storage), and highlights the vital importance of a long-term carbon price.

Beyond the scope of the report, there’s much to be done outside the energy sector – in particular by curbing tropical deforestation, and promoting the spread of agricultural practices that can achieve the “triple win” of greater productivity, greater resilience to climate, and lower environmental impacts (including GHG emissions).  And all of these efforts must be carried out in tandem with the overarching challenge of promoting broad-based economic prosperity around the globe, as President Jim Yong Kim of the World Bank has repeatedly emphasized.

But the bottom line is that one of the most hopeful publications on climate change you’ll read this year has come from the International Energy Agency, of all places.  Here is a road map toward a cleaner, more secure future.  Now it’s up to us to take it.

Cross-posted from EDF's Climate 411 blog.

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