Dire IEA Warning: Without Bold Climate Action, World will Be Locked in to 3.5°C Warming or Worse

, Policy Director and Lead Economist, Climate & Energy | November 16, 2011, 5:58 pm EDT
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Last week the International Energy Agency (IEA) released its annual World Energy Outlook for 2011 and the news could not be more sobering. If we continue on our current path of rapidly growing energy consumption and carbon emissions, we could lock in potentially catastrophic global warming of 3.5°C to 6°C (6.3°F to 10.8°F). Without further action, as soon as 2017, we will have locked in the emissions that are consistent with a 450 ppm trajectory (which IEA equates to 2°C of global warming).

Quoted in the Guardian, Fatih Birol, chief economist at the International Energy Agency, said: “The door is closing. I am very worried – if we don’t change direction now on how we use energy, we will end up beyond what scientists tell us is the minimum [for safety]. The door will be closed forever.”

Delaying action is extremely costly

An especially crucial insight the report provides is that delaying climate and energy policies is costly:

The long lifetime of capital stock in the power sector means that the sector accounts for half of the emissions locked-in to 2035. If action were to be delayed until 2015, around 45% of the global fossil-fuel capacity installed by then would have to be retired early or refurbished by 2035. Delaying action is a false economy. For every $1 of investment in the power sector avoided before 2020, an additional $4.3 would need to be spent after 2020 to compensate for the higher emissions.

Energy efficiency is our best solution

In its 450ppm scenario, the IEA projects that energy efficiency could account for half the reductions in energy use needed. Renewable energy, carbon capture and storage and nuclear power could also play an important role in cutting emissions, according to the IEA.

A recent UCS analysis shows how the U.S. can make deep cuts in its emissions by ramping up efficiency and renewable energy and saving consumers money. Furthermore, transitioning away from fossil fuels will bring valuable health benefits, both here in the U.S. and around the world.

Existing large fossil fuel subsidies are a bad idea

The IEA puts it plainly:

Fossil-fuel subsidies carry large costs. They encourage wasteful consumption, exacerbate energy-price volatility by blurring market signals, incentivise fuel adulteration and smuggling, and undermine the competitiveness of renewables and other low-emission energy technologies… Eliminating fossil-fuel subsidies could bring important economic and environmental benefits.

According to IEA estimates, global fossil fuel subsidies are currently over 6 times greater than subsidies to renewable energy ($409 billion v. $66 billion in 2010). Leveling the playing field is an important step toward a transition to clean energy – and that includes removing these distorting subsidies to fossil fuels, as well as making energy producers take into account the health and environmental costs of pollution from these fuels.

Energy access for the poor continues to be a pressing need

Lest one forgets, as the IEA points out:

Today, 1.3 billion people do not have electricity and 2.7 billion people still rely on the traditional use of biomass for cooking. We estimate that, in 2009, around $9 billion was invested globally to provide first access to modern energy, but more than five-times this amount, $48 billion, needs to be invested each year if universal access is to be achieved by 2030. Universal access by 2030 would increase global demand for fossil fuels and related CO2 emissions by less than 1%, a trivial amount in relation to the contribution made to human development and welfare.

A time for bold action

This report from the IEA is just the latest in a long series of analyses that show that tackling climate change is feasible and affordable. And that the most expensive thing we can do is nothing. It is time (and the window is fast closing!) to make the bold investments in our energy infrastructure that will help reduce the risks of calamitous climate change for generations to come.

Posted in: Energy, Global Warming

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  • alexis

    “The door is slamming shut”. Ah, yes; be afraid, be very afraid! Perhaps if we shut down CO2 producing industries and unemploy another 9% of Americans the world can be saved from utter destruction and preserved for environmentalists’ precious bugs and weeds.

    • It’s a false choice to think we have to trade off between economic well-being and reducing the risks of climate change. See this recent article in the Washington Post, for example:
      Investments in clean energy infrastructure can create new jobs and economic opportunities, not to mention provide significant public health benefits. Failing to address these risks will impose (and likely already is imposing) a huge economic burden on society: http://www.ucsusa.org/news/press_release/year-of-extremes-underscores-preparedness-emissions.html?utm_source=sp&utm_medium=more&utm_campaign=extreme-weather-2011-11-14-11-more

      • amd

        Sure enough, a few new jobs are created (very few) but too bad “investments in clean energy” don’t seem to yield any globally signifcant breakthrough in clean alternative energy sources. We seem only to get a piddling trickle of solar and ethanol fronting a tidal wave of the same old promises, promises, gimme, gimme, gimme. I’m becoming convinced the “clean energy” gambit is little more than a scam to divert funds to do-nothing “researchers” and lobbyists (these are the grandiose jobs that are being created!). Where’s the alternative energy — you remember, energy, the point of all this costly “research”??

      • Renewable energy sources are here today — this is not just about R&D for the next generation of RE, critical as that is. As the recent IPCC special report on RE (http://srren.ipcc-wg3.de/report/IPCC_SRREN_SPM.pdf) pointed out: Of the approximate 300 GW of new electricity generating capacity added globally over the two-year period from 2008 to 2009, 140 GW came from RE additions. Despite global financial challenges, RE capacity continued to grow rapidly in 2009 compared to the cumulative installed capacity from the previous year, including wind power (32% increase), grid-connected photovoltaics (53% increase) and solar hot water/heating (21% increase). Here in the U.S., wind power comprised ~42% of electric generating capacity additions in 2008 and 2009 (although this slowed considerably in 2010 due to the recession). There is a huge untapped potential for renewables (and their associated economic benefits) and the only thing holding that back right now is a strong, sustained policy environment. The U.S. is seriously lagging behind countries like China and Germany in that regard. In 2010, there were 367,400 jobs in the RE industry in Germany (see slide 47 here: http://www.bmu.de/files/english/pdf/application/pdf/ee_in_deutschland_graf_tab_en.pdf )

      • amd

        Well, there you go, Cleetus — the situation isn’t dire at all! You do a little google search and now inform us alternative energy is plentiful and jobs are abundant; the problemm is well on its way to being solved. Truth and positivity — that’s the spirit — much, much better than your original “dire warning”,’woe is us we’re all gonna die’ scaremongering!!!

        Your flip-flopping around is all a little confusing, though, and not very convincing nor reassuring.

      • Climate risks are a real and serious problem. And yes there is good news too — we have many solutions available today to start to address this problem. But we’re not doing nearly enough to deploy these solutions quickly and at a large enough scale. I’m not sure how recognizing all this amounts to flip-flopping.