The International Energy Agency has published a special report on climate change: what does it tell us about emissions?
By Megan Darby
There is good news and bad news in the International Energy Agency’s special report on climate change.
Good news: global energy-related emissions did not grow in 2014, for the first time outside an economic crisis in 40 years.
Bad news: national policies don’t go far enough to avert catastrophic climate change.
Good news: the IEA has some ideas to bridge the gap.
RTCC has leafed through the nearly 200 pages of in-depth analysis to dig out 9 graphs that show where we are, where we’re going and how we can go further.
References to emissions in this article refer to energy consumption only, not land use, forestry or emissions from cement and steel production.
1. It’s official: Emissions flatlined in 2014
Global emissions stalled in 2014. IEA chief economist Fatih Birol let slip as much in March. This report confirms it.
This is the first time in the past 40 years outside of an economic slump it has happened. The collapse of the Soviet Union and 2008 financial crisis prompted small dips.
By contrast, this time GDP grew 3%. It shows that economic growth is starting to be “decoupled” from fossil fuel use, as climate policies kick in.
Even China, which has surged on coal-intensive energy, trimmed emissions 1%, the IEA found.
Birol admitted unreliable data was “always a problem” with China and there was “a big question mark” around coal use figures. But this did not affect the big picture, he said.
2. We’re set to blow the carbon budget by 2040
Governments have agreed to limit global warming to 2C above pre-industrial levels.
To stand half a chance of meeting that goal, carbon dioxide emissions must be capped at 3,000 gigatonnes – the “carbon budget”.
Two thirds of that has already been used up and some must be allowed for farming, steel and cement production. That leaves an estimated 980Gt for energy.
According to the IEA, the climate plans submitted or signaled by countries to date blow the budget around 2040, just eight months later than if there were no plans.
It shows why more action is needed, said Birol: “Without solving the problem in the energy sector, we have no chance to solve the climate problem.”
3. Fossil fuel subsidies outweigh carbon pricing
Consumer subsidies for petrol, cooking gas and electricity might be vote-winners, but they encourage wasteful consumption and benefit the middle classes more than the poor.
That is why the likes of the World Bank and IMF are arguing they must be phased out and a price attached to carbon dioxide emissions.
While there are movements in that direction, in 2014 some 13% of global emissions were from fossil fuels subsidised to the tune of US$115 a tonne of CO2.
That doesn’t count indirect support such as tax rebates for oil producers and export credits for coal power technology.
The average price of a pollution permit on the carbon markets that cover 11% of emissions was a relatively puny $7/t.
Europe had the most widespread carbon pricing, covering 60% of emissions, while in the Middle East 63% were subsidised.
4. China is set to overtake the EU on historic emissions
This chart illustrates the tension behind one of the most heated debates in international climate talks: how the carbon budget should be shared out.
The current approach is to base a climate deal – due in December – on national contributions, which reflect what is considered possible.
That has not entirely averted discussion of what is “fair”. Poorer countries argue the rich must act first and fastest, while the developed world points to the increasing responsibility of emerging economies.
The US and Europe are behind the majority of historic emissions, generated as they grew wealthy on coal-fired industry.
Yet over the next 25 years, that picture shifts significantly as China’s cumulative emissions overtake the EU’s and India soars past Japan.
5. Most countries have mapped out emissions targets
Countries responsible for two thirds of energy-related emissions have either submitted climate action plans to the UN or signaled their content.
The US is aiming to slash emissions 26-28% from 2005 levels by 2025 and the EU 40% from 1990 levels by 2030.
China is targeting peak emissions by 2030 and is set to reveal more details on Wednesday.
Developing nations including Gabon, Ethiopia and Mexico have revealed their draft climate targets, with the rest due to follow by October.
Known as intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs), these will form the basis of a global deal to be struck in Paris this December.
6. The IEA’s bridge takes us half way
In its special report on climate change, the IEA sets out three projections.
The INDC scenario projects the emissions associated with the climate policies countries have already declared in “intended nationally determined contributions” to a global deal.
The bridge scenario maps further action that is possible with proven technologies and policies, at zero net cost to economies.
But as this graph clearly shows, it only gets the world half way to the “450 scenario”. That is the one consistent with a 2C limit, expressed as 450 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere.
For that reason, the IEA stresses the need for a global deal to schedule 5-year review cycles to ramp up commitment.
7. Carbon footprints will still vary widely between countries
Developed countries are mostly curbing their carbon footprints while the world’s poor enjoy an increasing share of the emissions space.
But with the climate policies on the table so far, in 2030 a typical American will still be responsible for more than five times the climate pollution of an Indian.
To meet the 2C goal, each world citizen should be emitting no more than 3 tonnes a year – roughly where Mexico and Southeast Asia are headed. Russia is in line for four times that.
This chart underlines why equity remains a big part of climate discussions.
“It will be very difficult to come up with a binding agreement on anyone, because the differences between countries are so huge,” said IEA chief Maria van der Hoeven. “On the other hand, that does not mean we have to do nothing.”
8. Energy efficiency is the biggest part of the solution
Wind turbines may be the emblem of choice for climate champions but investment in renewables makes up a relatively small chunk (17%) of the extra measures proposed by the IEA.
Energy efficiency delivers the lion’s share – 49% – of further emissions cuts. That means less wasteful cars, washing machines and buildings.
Stopping methane leaks from oil and gas extraction contributes 15% of IEA’s package, fossil fuel subsidy reform 10% and a ban on inefficient coal plants 9%.
In the longer run, it expects carbon capture and storage (CCS) to play a bigger role. After decades of development, there are a handful of CCS plants worldwide but it is not yet economically viable without significant government support.
The IEA expects fossil fuels to continue to make up 60% of the global energy mix in 2040, making the technology to neutralise its emissions “imperative”.
9. Energy access improves but not for everyone
The IEA estimates 1.3 billion people worldwide lack access to electricity and 2.6 billion have only smoky fuels to cook with.
This report being primarily about solving the climate challenge, the IEA did not assume everyone would get access to modern energy.
Instead, it made sure the outlook for the world’s poorest was no worse in the bridge scenario than set out in INDCs. Another 1.7 billion get powered up and 1.6 billion get clean cookstoves.
But previous research by the IEA has shown that universal energy access would add less than 1% to global emissions.
In some cases it has a positive impact, as solar lighting replaces kerosene lamps and LPG displaces wood for cooking.
“The threat to global warming from achieving greater energy access to energy for the under-privileged is negligible,” the report states.