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‘When’ not ‘whether’: tracking the shifts in global energy

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Renewable energy generation being used to power illuminated speed limit signs in Barrow in Furness, Cumbria, UK.

By Dr Stephan Singer

I still remember the days when the International Energy Agency (IEA), the highly reputed energy watchdog of the OECD, projected that global oil prices would grow smoothly.

They suggested prices would be around $US 30 – 40 per barrel after 2025, justifying an ever increasing use of oil and coal. They also suggested that renewable energy power might achieve a maximum of 6% of global electricity by 2030, that greenhouse gas emissions reductions by rich countries (as agreed in the Kyoto Protocol) are unlikely to be met and that overall, the steady increase of fossil fuel consumption ‘will’ be the precondition for economic growth in all countries.

Today we know that this was utter nonsense.

Renewables rising

Global oil prices grew more than projected, leading many governments to question the traditional development narrative based on fossil fuels. Many countries achieved their carbon reduction commitments under the Kyoto Protocol (some even overachieved, like the EU).

Renewable energies, excluding traditional biomass, today represent about 10% of all energies. Wind and solar alone are close to 6% of all electricity generated today – let alone by 2030. I hope the IEA ditched their old crystal ball.

About ten years back, the IEA, bluntly speaking, was not only the spokesperson of the incumbent polluting energy narrative but also doubted the need and options to address a dramatic clean energy change.

Things have turned much more positive since then. Rather than mainly fossil fuel companies’ propaganda, much more sophisticated analysis entered IEA publications – particularly in the annual flagship analysis World Energy Outlook (WEO) and its well-received satellite reports.

The IEA today – indeed – is the ‘conservative’ wing of the global climate and clean energy movement. As a friend of mine in the IEA put it recently “We understand. We get it increasingly. You guys have put a powerful wedge into the old-fashioned fossil and nuclear supply-oriented IEA system”. This wedge is going viral – not only within the IEA, but also within the energy community at large.

However, the IEA did not change overnight. It was a long and steady process.

Then and now

To contrast former IEA statements and outputs with the most recent ones, let us look at their recent report, “Energy and Climate Change” dealing with the needed policy measures to make the Paris COP a success. The IEA was looking at the voluntary climate pledges for 2030 by the major countries, the so-called INDCs.

The IEA makes it very clear that the proposed policies are certainly a good start, but by no means effective enough to curtail global warming to well below 2 degrees by the end of the century – the requirement to limit serious climate change impacts.

Fatih Birol, the new incoming boss of the IEA and the person responsible for various WEO issues in the past (and hopefully in the future too), said it loud and clear recently at a large conference in Brussels. ‘The IEA will do everything to support the 2-degree objective’. ‘Renewables will be the big winners of the global energy transition’, ‘Renewables will constitute the largest share of all new energy investments in the years to come and they will be the biggest energy supply source in a few years’.

This is irrespective of the forecasted inadequacy of the INDCs. It is purely a matter of ‘when’ and not ‘whether’.

Moreover, Birol was outspoken in his dire warning to the entire incumbent energy industry. He almost threatened them, saying that they will disappear and probably go bust if they do not realise the challenge and tasks to decarbonise.

He also entered unchartered territory (at least for the IEA) by commenting on fairness and equity in addressing responsibility to act. This is usually a typical playground of Civil Society Organisations and one which is mostly ignored by the powerful and mighty. The IEA boss implied utterly clear that any lamenting about China and India ‘not doing what they ought to do to protect the climate’ is no more than ignorant political garbage. “China and India bashing” is a hot topic and an issue that is debated regularly in OECD capitals.

Though not in the final IEA report, the graph shown to the celebrity audience with dozens of policy makers, EU officials and some ministers, displayed that the US and EU combined (only with about half the population compared to China) emitted 650 billion tons of CO2 from fossil fuels cumulatively from 1890 until today. China emitted ‘only’ 150 Gt CO2.

The IEA also cautioned against using absolute emission numbers saying that while India is now third largest carbon emitter worldwide, their per capita electricity consumption is less than one tenth of that of an average OECD citizen. Therefore, historic responsibility for the long-time prevailing CO2 in the atmosphere is as important as considering per capita emissions in any fair global deal.

Focus on renewables

The IEA showed in its report that the world needs short-term and immediate interventions in five energy themes and sectors to upscale the INDC ambitions and make the 2-degree objective still reachable. In addition to the large chunk of cost-effective energy saving measures in buildings, transport and industries, phasing out of inefficient coal and all fossil fuel subsidies ranked as high on the list.

Other actions include significantly increasing investments in renewables ahead of 2030 and addressing methane, a very powerful greenhouse gas, increasingly leaking from unconventional shale and classical gas and oil exploration.
We might not agree on the details of all proposed measures, but the selection of the policy interventions are spot on.

But more interesting is that the IEA as a still somewhat staunch supporter of nuclear and carbon capture and storage, as well as ‘low carbon’ gas (are they still?), did not include those into the five key policy recommendations. It’s a definite blow to all those who disguise dodgy climate solutions behind the buzz word of ‘low carbon technologies’.

So, is it surprising then that the IEA’s Fatih Birol (in a separate interview in London) supported the move to 100% renewables as a long term target?

The good news is that we are getting powerful allies from unexpected directions. The bad news is that I will certainly miss the engaged and sometimes rough debates with some IEA officials on clean energy development. But we in the clean energy and climate movement have won a powerful friend. Thanks Fatih!

Dr Stephan Singer is the director for Global Energy Policy for WWF. He is based in Brussels.

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