IEA develops pathway to ambitious 1.5C climate goal

Under pressure, the International Energy Agency has started work on a scenario in line with the toughest target of the Paris Agreement for its influential outlook

The Trans Anatolian Pipeline gas project in Turkey (Photo: Tanap)


The International Energy Agency (IEA) is developing a scenario for holding global warming below 1.5C that could be included in its influential annual outlook this year.

The agency’s World Energy Outlook (WEO) came under fire in an April letter from business leaders, scientists and campaigners for not considering the tougher temperature goal of the Paris Agreement.

Since the letter, the IEA has canvassed outside experts on a new, 1.5C-compatible model. They include Joeri Rogelj, a scientist at Imperial College and lead author on a recent UN report on 1.5C warming.

He said there was “genuine interest” at the IEA and – in his view – the agency “definitely intend” to produce a new scenario.

Rogelj, a signatory of the April letter, said two options were being considered at the time he was consulted by the IEA. The first was a full pathway to reach global net zero emissions on a timeline that would fit with 1.5C.

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“My understanding is that modelling the entire pathway is really challenging given the resources and the time constraints they have to produce the report this year,” Rogelj said.

That leaves a second option that charts a course to 2030. Rogelj said this would allow the IEA to do the modelling in time for the release of this year’s WEO in November. A draft is due in July.

A spokesman for the IEA did not deny a 1.5C scenario was under consideration, but stressed that work on the WEO was at a preliminary stage.

“We are currently in the review and analysis phase for the forthcoming World Energy Outlook 2019 [and] are considering new science, new technology costs, and new themes for the next edition. Until we complete the full analysis, we are not in a position to comment on the content of the WEO,” the spokesman said.

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The WEO is used by businesses, investors and governments as the global benchmark for modelling the energy industry. The outlook’s most prominent scenario is one that extrapolates current policies. The IEA and other international bodies have repeatedly warned that this path would send the earth’s climate into dangerous territory.

The April letter said most users saw this scenario as “guiding”, potentially leading investors and policymakers to align their plans to it. In 2015 in Paris, nations agreed to hold warming “below 2C” and stretch for a 1.5 limit. This lower, less destructive goal should be reflected in the IEA’s reports, they said.

This opened a debate over the IEA’s role in setting norms around global energy use. The agency responded that it produces a range of scenarios highlighting the huge gap between the current global trajectory and a safe climate. These include a scenario under which warming is held to 2C and “sustainable development” pathway, first published in 2017. Both of them require global emissions to peak this year. The IEA has already produced models that align to 1.5C, although it has not published them as a full scenario alongside these others.

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A source who has worked closely with the IEA said a 1.5C scenario for WEO 2019 was “definitely amongst the areas being looked at and assessed and thought about”.

Fatih Birol, the IEA’s executive director, is also consulting on the 1.5C modelling work, according to the source. “He’s always been someone who is concerned about the climate and has been seeking to push a strong focus on climate risks.”

The IEA is an intergovernmental body with 30 full members, all drawn from the OECD. They represent a range of political perspectives and economic interests. In regular meetings at its Paris headquarters, the agency briefs governments on its research and the states communicate their priorities.

Some members are unlikely to be supportive. Cutting emissions in line with 1.5C is a deep challenge for all countries, but particularly economies tied to the production of coal, oil and gas. Last year the US, the largest contributor to the IEA budget, refused to join other countries in welcoming a UN scientific report on the impacts of 1.5C warming.

Other member states are lobbying the IEA in favour of a 1.5C scenario, according to Greg Muttitt, research director of Oil Change International (OCI). The NGO is coordinating a pressure campaign involving investors, pro-climate action governments and “influential climate experts”.

“This is a very live conversation in all three of those circles,” Muttitt said.

One of those climate luminaries is former UN climate chief Christiana Figueres. She has an ongoing dialogue with Birol and the IEA on the issue of 1.5C. On Tuesday, she told CHN the agency had an “extraordinary opportunity now to step up its leadership and ensure the WEO meets its users’ needs in a rapidly changing world”.

“The timing is key,” Figueres said. National governments are bound by the Paris Agreement to update their climate pledges by the end of next year. Given it is released in November each year, the 2019 edition of the WEO has a chance to inform those plans.

“With the Paris goal of 1.5C as our clear, shared imperative, all nations will benefit from a robust 1.5C-compatible IEA scenario,” said Figures.

Rogelj said it was possible the IEA would conclude that holding below the 1.5C limit was not feasible. The agency typically considers political constraints when assessing targets. This would “highlight the real challenges you have to achieve” the goal, he said.

Read more on: 1.5C | 2C | Climate science | Energy