World needs ‘laser focus’ on emissions reduction – IEA

The International Energy Agency (IEA) has warned that global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions will continue to rise by approximately 1.3% annually until 2040 – even if countries meet their existing environmental targets. Considerably stronger policies and more ambitious targets are needed to prevent catastrophic climate damage. 

The path the world is presently on is modelled in the annual World Energy Outlook (WEO)’s Current Policies Scenario, which provides a baseline projection of how global energy systems would evolve if governments make no changes to their existing policies. Under this trajectory, the planet can anticipate ‘a relentless upward march in energy-related emissions, as well as growing strains on almost all aspects of energy security’, according to the report. 

The WEO 2019 details two additional pathways – the Stated Policies Scenario and the Sustainable Development Scenario. The former incorporates today’s policy targets and governments’ stated intentions, in addition to existing measures. But the IEA notes that the future outlined in this scenario still leaves hundreds of millions of people without electricity, and many more suffering from pollution-related illnesses and severe impacts from climate change. 

In this scenario, energy demand rises by 1% annually for the next two decades. Low carbon sources, led by solar, supply more than half of this growth. Meanwhile, natural gas accounts for another third of supply, while coal use creeps lower and oil demand levels off in the 2030s. The report is optimistic about the futures of countries with net zero targets, which it predicts will go far in reshaping energy supply and consumption. 

However, the momentum behind clean energy technologies in progressive countries will not offset the impacts of an expanding global economy or a growing population. Ultimately, in the Stated Policies Scenario, the rise in emissions slows, but does not peak before 2040 and the global community falls far short of its shared sustainability aims. 

‘The world urgently needs to put a laser-like focus on bringing down global emissions,’ urges Dr Fatih Birol, the IEA’s Executive Director. ‘This calls for a grand coalition encompassing governments, investors, companies and everyone else who is committed to tackling climate change.’ 

Only under the WEO’s most ambitious Sustainable Development Scenario does the world align with the Paris Agreement and halt the rise in global temperatures to well below 2°C while pursuing efforts to limit warming to 1.5°C. Dramatic improvements in energy efficiency would do the lion’s share of the work needed to bring the planet towards the Sustainable Development Scenario. Yet, at present, improvements in this area are slowing. 

Electricity is one of the only energy sources that sees rising consumption to 2040 on the WEO’s Sustainable Development pathway. Electricity’s share of final consumption overtakes that of the present-day leader – oil – in two decades’ time, with solar and wind providing almost all of the increase in electricity generation. (See page 5 for a more detailed analysis of the IEA’s offshore wind findings.) 

However, the report notes that making electricity sustainable will require more than the simple addition of new renewable capacity. Policymakers will also have to turn their attention to the emissions that are locked into existing fossil fuel generation, especially coal-fired power stations. In the past two decades, Asia has accounted for 90% of all coal capacity built globally – and many of these plants still have long operational lifetimes. 

The IEA has three suggestions for cutting the emissions from coal plants: to retrofit them with carbon capture, utilisation and storage or biomass co-firing equipment; to repurpose them to focus on providing system adequacy and flexibility; or to simply retire them sooner. 

‘What comes through with crystal clarity in this year’s World Energy Outlook is there is no single or simple solution to transforming global energy systems,’ said Dr Birol. ‘Many technologies and fuels have a part to play across all sectors of the economy. For this to happen, we need strong leadership from policy makers, as governments hold the clearest responsibility to act and have the greatest scope to shape the future.’ 

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