IEA: emissions up, 2ºC target looking unlikely

By Bryan Walker 28/05/2012

Fatih Birol, chief economist at the International Energy Agency (IEA) said at Reuters’ Global  Energy & Environment Summit this month that the door for a 2 degree Celsius target is about to be closed and closed forever. That’s a serious statement, but one which has been backed up in recent days by a news release from the IEA announcing that their preliminary estimates show that in 2011 global carbon-dioxide emissions from fossil-fuel combustion reached a record high of 31.6 gigatonnes (Gt).

This represents an increase of 1.0 Gt on 2010, or 3.2%. Coal accounted for 45% of total energy-related CO2 emissions in 2011, followed by oil (35%) and natural gas (20%).

The 450 Scenario of the IEA’s World Energy Outlook 2011, which sets out an energy pathway consistent with a 50% chance of limiting the increase in the average global temperature to 2°C, requires CO2 emissions to peak at 32.6 Gt no later than 2017, i.e. just 1.0 Gt above 2011 levels. The 450 Scenario sees a decoupling of CO2 emissions from global GDP, but much still needs to be done to reach that goal as the rate of growth in CO2 emissions in 2011 exceeded that of global GDP.

Not surprisingly Birol repeats his warning: ’The new data provide further evidence that the door to a 2°C trajectory is about to close.’

A similar conclusion is reported by Climate Action Tracker. Their analysis shows that many governments do not appear to be implementing policies to meet their 2020 emissions reduction pledges.

’It’s clear that many governments are nowhere near putting in place the policies they have committed to, policies that are not enough to keep temperature rise to below 2oC. We’ve already identified a major emissions gap and the action being taken is highly unlikely to shrink that gap — indeed it seems that the opposite is happening,’ said Bill Hare, Director of Climate Analytics.

Here’s where we’re headed:

The planet is heading to a temperature rise of at least 3.5oC, but that could be even more if the 2020 pledges are not met.

To return to Birol and the IEA. At the Reuters’ summit he went on to point to two obdurate factors which are obstacles to emissions reduction. They are factors he has spoken of regularly. One is the investment in existing plants and plants under construction.  The IEA explained in its World Energy Outlook 2011 publication last November:

Four-fifths of the total energy-related CO2 emissions permissible by 2035 in the 450 Scenario are already ’locked-in’ by our existing capital stock (power plants, buildings, factories, etc.). If stringent new action is not forthcoming by 2017, the energy-related infrastructure then in place will generate all the CO2 emissions allowed in the 450 Scenario up to 2035, leaving no room for additional power plants, factories and other infrastructure unless they are zero-carbon, which would be extremely costly. Delaying action is a false economy: for every $1 of investment avoided in the power sector before 2020 an additional $4.3 would need to be spent after 2020 to compensate for the increased emissions.

In this context the IEA pointed out that anything built from now on that produces carbon will do so for decades, and this “lock-in” effect will be the single factor most likely to produce irreversible climate change. If this is not rapidly changed within the next five years, the results are likely to be disastrous.

The second obdurate factor Birol highlighted at the Reuters’ summit was fossil fuel subsidies, which he sees as a major reason for rising carbon dioxide emissions. He reported that in 2012, $630 billion was spent on fossil fuel subsidies globally, with half of this from the Middle East and the other half from the rest of the world. “By contrast, in 2010, fuel subsidies totalled $400 billion. We are going backwards,” he said.

He spoke at greater length on this theme to the Guardian in January of this year:

“Energy markets can be thought of as suffering from appendicitis due to fossil fuel subsidies. They need to be removed for a healthy energy economy,” said Birol. “Energy is significantly underpriced in many parts of the world, leading to wasteful consumption, price volatility and fuel smuggling. It’s also undermining the competitiveness of renewables.”

The elimination of the subsidies would have a substantial effect on emissions:

Birol and the IEA said that a phase-out would avoid 750m tonnes of CO2 a year by 2015, potentially rising to 2.6 gigatonnes by 2035. He claimed such cuts could provide around half the emissions reductions needed over the next decade to reach a trajectory that would limit global warming to 2oC, considered the limit of safety by many scientists. “Fossil fuel subsidies are a hand brake as we drive along the road to a sustainable energy future,” he said. “Removing them would take us half way to a trajectory that would hold us to 2oC.”

The IEA was not set up to fight climate change, but it does see that fight as a defining factor for energy policy-making. In its overview of global energy production it is well-placed to discern the direction in which we are moving, and its warnings are all the more crucial for that. As they summed up in the World Energy Outlook 2011, If we don’t change direction soon, we’ll end up where we’re heading.

Here’s a recent short clip showing Birol speaking with characteristic forthrightness on the responsibility of the energy sector in fighting climate change.