Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency, speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Monday. Credit: Randy Showstack

In Washington, D.C., this week, the head of the International Energy Agency (IEA) suggested that the climate talks taking place now in Paris could pressure the energy industry to help keep global warming within limits. Declines in greenhouse gas emissions from the energy sector, along with other measures, could help make up for the lack of sufficient carbon belt-tightening so far in national pledges by more than 150 countries, the official said.

“If we want to solve the climate problem, we have to solve the problem of the energy sector.”

“If we want to solve the climate problem, we have to solve the problem of the energy sector,” Fatih Birol, IEA executive director, said in a presentation Monday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). In his talk, Birol focused on energy and climate change and on IEA’s recently released “World Energy Outlook 2015,” an annual compendium of analysis and projections by the IEA, a multinational organization specializing in world energy policy and global energy use and supply.

Birol said the fact that scores of countries have submitted intended nationally determined contributions that include emission reduction targets provides grounds for optimism. “It has never been the case that so many countries are making such a commitment,” he said. “This is a basis, hopefully, for an agreement in Paris.”

However, according to the United Nations (UN) Framework Convention on Climate Change Secretariat, the UN organization conducting the Paris meeting, even if all the nations that have submitted greenhouse gas emission reduction plans to the negotiations so far meet their country targets, the planet would still be on a path to reach a 2.7°C global temperature increase above preindustrial levels. Climate scientists have projected that human societies globally could face severe hardship and disruption if warming tops 2°C.

A 0.7°C Solution?

In an interview with Eos after the presentation, Birol said that “if the political momentum is there” in Paris, a 2°C target remains attainable. Needed would be an agreement that would strengthen the initial national emissions targets plus “give a signal to the energy investors” about how they should make future investment decisions. He added that support for energy technology innovation in the agreement would also help lessen the temperature increase from  2.7°C closer to the 2°C target.

“Definitely [the potential for limiting warming to] a 2 degrees change is not lost,” Birol said. “There’s still a chance, but Paris may well be our last hope.”

Fossil fuel subsidies are “public enemy number one” for renewables and energy efficiency measures.

Birol told the CSIS audience that about two thirds of the emissions causing climate change come from the energy sector. He mentioned trends in the energy industry that could keep warming within bounds. Fossil fuel subsidy reform, particularly in India and Indonesia, reduced global subsidies below $500 billion in 2014, he noted. Yet the remaining subsidies still make the price of fossil fuels “artificially low,” which leads to unfair competition against renewables and energy efficiency measures, he said. “You can think of a 200 meter race, and fossil fuels start from 50 meters to finish the race and renewables start from scratch,” he said. Fossil fuel subsidies are “public enemy number one” for renewables and energy efficiency measures, Birol added.

Also a boon to emission cuts, renewable energy was a major growth area in 2014 that accounted for about 50% of new energy capacity additions, he said. Renewables “are no longer a niche fuel. They are becoming a mainstream fuel when you look at the numbers,” he asserted.

Reconciling Economic Growth and the Environment

Birol said that coal is losing a significant market share. He said, for instance, that coal use is declining in China, which consumes half of the world’s coal. However, he noted that India is the world’s number one coal importer. “To generate electricity from coal is the cheapest option for India. It would be in my view very unfair to say to India, ‘Don’t do that,’ while 250 million people have no electricity. They are doing it, but it has implications for everybody,” Birol said.

Reconciling economic growth and environmental considerations “is a big challenge,” he said, noting that much of the economic growth in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere has been fueled by coal. “But we cannot afford worldwide to have the same pattern continue,” he explained, “because we will not be able to reach our climate targets.” He suggested that countries should not build inefficient coal plants without legitimate grounds for doing so and that incentives should be provided to discourage such construction.

—Randy Showstack, Staff Writer

Citation: Showstack, R. (2015), Paris climate talks could spur energy sector action, Eos, 96, doi:10.1029/2015EO040875. Published on 4 December 2015.

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