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Some encouraging trend lines on global warming, but danger zone remains near

Carbon dioxide emissions from fossil-fuel consumption stayed flat in 2014 even as the global economy grew by 3 percent.

Carbon dioxide emissions from fossil-fuel consumption stayed flat in 2014 even as the global economy grew by 3 percent.
REUTERS/Ina Fassbender

In what will surely rank among 2015’s most significant reports on the pace of global warming, the International Energy Agency on Monday laid out several positive trend lines and one grim counterpoint as it looked to the future:

  • Carbon dioxide emissions from fossil-fuel consumption stayed flat in 2014 even as the global economy grew by 3 percent, “the first time in at least 40 years that such an outcome has occurred outside economic crisis.”
  • The “energy intensity” of the global economy fell by 2.3 percent last year, more than double the average yearly decline of the past decade.
  • Renewable energy sources accounted for nearly half of all new generating capacity added in 2014, with China joining the U.S., Japan and Germany among the leading developers; renewables are  approaching coal’s share of world power production.
  • With projected economic growth of 88 percent between 2013 and 2030, emissions from energy use may grow just 8 percent if emitting nations hold to their newest control policies.

Taken together, says the IEA, these amount to strong signs that strong economic growth is beginning to “decouple” from greenhouse gas emissions at long last.

But is it enough to ward off catastrophe? Probably not.

To define the boundary of the climate danger zone, IEA uses the widely accepted standard of a 2 degree Celsius increase in global average temperature (3.6 degree Fahrenheit), and its forecasts project the date at which the world faces a 50 percent chance of crossing that line.

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Based on current national policies, the IEA predicts that the 2 degree mark will be reached sometime in 2040. And here’s the most sobering part:

That’s a mere eight months later than the 2 degree threshhold might arrive without the new, more aggressive pledges announced this spring by the United States and other nations that account for about one-third of greenhouse gas outputs worldwide.

Prepping for Paris talks

The IEA report is the latest in its annual World Energy Outlook series, and much of its discussion is geared to the COP21 gathering of nations in Paris this December as part of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change.

That session will attempt to reach a new global accord on emissions reductions beyond 2020, when the current goals expire, and in preparation for the talks each participating country has been asked to prepare a detailed reduction plan known as an INDC (for Intended Nationally Determined Contribution).

The new report forecasts the impact of INDCs that have been prepared to date; for countries that have yet so submit an INDC, including China as one notable example, the IEA included the most recent set of emissions goals available.

The United States has pledged that its total emissions in 2025 will be 26 to 28 percent lower than they were in 2005, which is the largest absolute reduction offered by any nation that has prepared an INDC.

And yet, according to the Washington Post’s Chris Mooney, whose analysis of the IEA report was the best single treatment I’ve seen, Americans would still remain among the world’s largest emitters on a per-capita basis:

With a population of 30 million more people, energy demand in the U.S. would nonetheless not increase much by 2025 — even as renewables grow to exceed 20 percent of total electricity generation (still slightly behind a much weakened coal sector, at 23 percent). The biggest emissions gains, though, would actually come from ever-improving vehicle fuel economy standards.

The U.S. is thus typical of the overall IEA picture — a country that will do a great deal, but not necessarily enough. The agency therefore calls for stronger steps to cut emissions — including a global peak in energy emissions by 2020, and a process to check where nations are on their goals every five years. …

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The IEA says the world can peak emissions by 2020 by pursuing five policies simultaneously: ramping up renewables, ramping down coal use, investing heavily in energy efficiency, cutting fossil fuel subsidies, and quickly capping emissions of the hard-hitting but short-lived climate pollutant methane.

Good coverage elsewhere

Following are excerpts from other good coverage of the IEA report:

  • From the UK Guardian’s Fiona Harvey, on the problem of newly built but old-technology coal plants being built in poorer countries, where they’re likely to operate for 50 years or more:

Old designs of coal plants waste much more energy and produce far more carbon per unit of electricity than more modern technology. But they are cheaper to build and so are often preferred in rapidly emerging economies, particularly in south Asia.

At present, among Asia’s most prominent economies, at least half of all new power plants use the inefficient old technologies. If modern designs were used instead, the savings in emissions would be equal to the savings from the European Union’s new pledge to cut emissions by 40% by 2030, according to the IEA.

The extra cost would be more than made up for in greater energy produced for the same amount of fuel. “Coal-fired power plants are our biggest challenge,” said [IEA director Fatih] Birol. “So this is the first thing we have to implement.”

Tax breaks, subsidized fuel prices and other government support amount to an incentive to pollute worth $115 per metric ton of carbon dioxide, the [IEA] said Monday. … That compares with an average $7 cost to buy emission permits in carbon markets, according to the Paris-based group.

In North America, carbon prices and subsidies each cover about 4 percent of emissions, the agency said. The subsidies amount to $36 a ton on average, while the carbon price is $9 a ton. Latin American subsidies are $208 a ton, compared with $173 a ton in the Middle East, $168 in Africa, $104 in India and $29 in China, the IEA said.

The report states that nuclear power is the second-biggest source of low-carbon electricity, adding that in the last few years almost half of all new reactor units have been built in countries with de-regulated electricity markets or with state-owned companies building, operating and owing them.

China had 28 gigawatts of new nuclear power capacity under construction at the end of last year and could have more nuclear capacity than the current global leader, the USA, by 2030, according to the report.

(However, the Wall Street Journal opined that nuclear’s future worldwide remains clouded by continuing concern over the reactor meltdown’s at Japan’s Fukushima power station.)

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Wind, solar and other types of renewable power will overtake coal to become the world’s top source of electricity in just 15 years if the pledges countries are making for a global climate change deal this year are met.

The striking finding by the International Energy Agency shows renewable power could soar from just over a fifth of global electricity generation today to nearly a third by 2030 — a bigger share than either coal, gas or nuclear plants.

This shows today’s energy companies are making a “major fatal error” if they assume climate action is not going to affect their businesses, Fatih Birol, the IEA chief economist, said.

“That would be like assuming interest rates will stay the same for the next 25 years,” he told the FT in an interview. “It’s the same type of short-sightedness.”

  • And on that methane problem, again from the Guardian’s Fiona Harvey, who noted that none of the IEA’s recommendations rely on new technologies, but only on wider or smarter use of existing methods:

Oil and gas companies must also take action to eliminate the release of methane, a greenhouse gas more than 20 times as powerful as carbon dioxide, which is set free in operations such as fracking.

Most companies fail to do this, even though it is technically possible and costs on average only 1 percent more than extraction without the right technology.

Birol said that if energy companies – several of which recently pledged to tackle global warming through a carbon price – were serious about climate change, they would take this action urgently.

  • And, finally, back to the Washington Post’s Chris Mooney, for a thoughtful piece last month explaining that while a 2 degree C temperature rise may be the most widely accepted margin of safety these days, plenty of opinion holds that it’s too high – and that 1.5 degrees has a stronger precautionary argument to be made in its favor.