Today the International Energy Agency (IEA) released a new climate and energy report that highlights the inexorable growth in our heat-trapping emissions and reiterates the urgent need for a rapid ramp-up of renewable energy and energy efficiency resources to help address climate change. Cutting fugitive methane emissions and reducing fossil fuel subsidies are other important recommendations.
Global emissions continue to grow
According to the report, in 2012 global energy-related carbon (CO2) emissions increased 1.4 percent, reaching a record high of 31.6 gigatonnes (Gt). With atmospheric CO2 levels reaching an all-time high of 400 ppm in May, it’s past time to make deep cuts in the emissions that are contributing to climate change.
US emissions are falling but the future remains uncertain
Here in the U.S., we’ve seen important changes in our electricity mix that have contributed to a recent drop in energy-related carbon emissions, which were at their lowest level since 1994 at 5.3 Gt CO2. Significant retirements of coal-fired generation, a switch to natural gas generation, record amounts of wind and solar energy deployment and increased energy efficiency have all contributed to this trend.
However, we’ll need more comprehensive policies to ensure that we continue to rapidly decarbonize our electricity mix. Relying on volatile natural gas prices as a climate and energy policy is too big a risk. For example, we have already seen coal regain some of its market share in the first quarter of 2013 as natural gas prices began to rise. Furthermore, natural gas is still a fossil fuel and the IEA itself has previously pointed out that even a global shift to natural gas would still leave us on a path to a temperature increase of over 3.5°C. Growing U.S. exports of coal also present a major challenge to keeping global emissions down.
Increased fuel efficiency standards are already making a difference and, along with other measures, could make a growing contribution to reducing U.S. emissions from the transportation sector.
Important policies to help reduce U.S. electricity sector emissions
One of the most important near term steps that must happen: finalizing EPA’s power plant carbon standards for curtailing emissions from both new and existing power plants. Additionally, state renewable electricity standards already have a proven track record of delivering clean energy, lower emissions and economic benefits. We’ve got to invest in expanding them across the country and strengthening them. More long term certainty for renewable energy tax credits, such as the production tax credit, and other financial mechanisms could also help overcome existing market barriers to renewable energy and put them on a more level playing field with fossil fuels. Finally, a price on carbon is a critical market tool that can help drive down emissions and provide incentives for clean energy innovation.
What about China?
As the IEA report points out, China’s emissions were the biggest factor in the 2012 global rise in emissions, although its emissions growth was one of the slowest it has seen in a decade. China is making big strides in reducing its energy intensity and deploying renewable energy, even as it works to raise living standards for millions of its people. A significant share of China’s growing emissions is attributable to its exports to other countries, with one estimate showing that that share could be as high as one-third of its emissions.
China’s dramatically rising demand for coal is the main driver for its emissions growth. Recent EIA data show that China now consumes nearly as much coal as the rest of the world combined. Clearly, continued aggressive action in China to tamp down its emissions trajectory is critical. Barbara Finamore at NRDC lays out a five-part strategy to cap and cut this coal consumption. Recent tentative steps toward establishing a price on carbon in China by 2015 could have a huge impact if and when it is implemented broadly. As a first step, pilot trading programs have been launched in seven provinces and cities.
An encouraging partnership between the U.S. and China?
One bright spot may be that the U.S. and China are increasingly recognizing their common interests in addressing climate change. An important outcome of Secretary Kerry’s recent trip to China was a joint statement by the two countries on climate change. During Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent visit, he and President Obama agreed to work together to curtail emissions of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), potent greenhouse gases which are currently used in the manufacture of refrigerators and other appliances.
Of course, we still need to see if they deliver on their commitments in a concrete way. There’s a lot they can do bilaterally and even more if they can help break the current gridlock in the international climate negotiations.
IEA’s four policies for a 2°C Scenario
The IEA report analyzed a ‘4-for-2°C’ scenario with four major policies that could help bring about an 8 percent decrease in energy-related CO2 emissions by 2020 by relying on current technologies and measures that are being deployed in many countries today. These include:
- Energy efficiency measures in buildings, industry and transport
- Limiting the construction and use of the least-efficient coal-fired power plants and increasing the share of power generation from renewables and natural gas
- Actions to halve fugitive methane releases from the upstream oil and gas industry
- A partial phase-out of fossil fuel consumption subsidies
All of these are no-brainers for the U.S., and come with significant additional benefits apart from reducing global warming emissions. As the IEA points out, energy efficiency measures save consumers money on their electricity bills. Coal-fired power is already under pressure for numerous economic reasons. Reinforcing that trend away from coal comes with huge public health benefits from reductions in emissions of sulfur dioxide, mercury, soot, nitrogen oxides, heavy metals, and other harmful pollutants. A recent report from WRI points out significant opportunities for reducing fugitive methane emissions in the U.S. And phasing out fossil fuel subsidies can level the playing field for cleaner generation sources.
Investing in energy resilience
The IEA also makes an important point that, with climate change already underway and likely to worsen, our energy system needs to be made more resilient. Recent UCS research has highlighted the growing risk of energy and water collisions in a warming world. Extreme weather events like Hurricane Sandy have exposed critical vulnerabilities in our energy infrastructure. Heat waves can also put pressure on the electricity grid. Taking steps to address these issues will be important to ensuring electric reliability under future warming.
While we will need to invest in adapting our energy system to climate change, it’s important to note that investing in reducing emissions is as vital as ever and over the long term could help mitigate the frequency or severity and costs of climate impacts (and costs of adapting to them). Some options – like investing in energy efficiency – are a win for both mitigation and resilience-building efforts in the energy sector.
Social and political tipping points
Today’s IEA report is only the latest in a long line of reports that show the technical and economic feasibility of reducing our emissions. As always, what’s lacking is political will. Will the U.S. and other major emitting countries join hands in showing the way forward to a low-carbon world? Or will we remain mired in partisan politics on the domestic front and the same tired blame game at the international level?
Perhaps, with growing evidence of costly climate impacts in our daily lives, we may soon be reaching social tipping points which will force politicians to act.