Climate Change News

World off Course to Meet Emissions Reduction Goals

A new energy report shows a disconnect between scientific research targets and what is happening in the energy markets.


Despite energy efficiency and solar energy and other renewables playing an ever-larger role in the global energy mix, carbon emissions are increasing, and the world is not on course to meeting emissions reduction goals set by the 2016 Paris climate accord. That’s according to “World Energy Outlook 2018,” a report issued by the International Energy Agency (IEA) on 13 November.

“We can now safely say that in 2018, CO2 [carbon dioxide] emissions will reach an historical high,” IEA executive director Fatih Birol said at a 13 November briefing in Paris. “I see a very sharp disconnect between the scientific research targets—aims we have in terms of climate change—and what is happening in the energy markets.”

The report states that after three flat years, global energy-related CO2 emissions rose by 1.6% in 2017, and data suggest that they will “remain on a slow but steady upward path.” That increase was driven by economic growth and a slowdown in the spread of energy efficiency policies, according to the report, which lays out three different future outlooks for policy makers. Those outlooks include a scenario in which current policies don’t change, the report’s main “new policies” scenario that incorporates announced policies and targets, and a sustainable development scenario of accelerated clean energy transitions.

Measures Could Help Meet Climate Goals

The report suggests measures for the world to adopt to get on track to meet climate objectives. The measures include much more investment in renewable energy, which already accounts for 45% of the growth in global energy demand; retrofitting existing buildings and transportation infrastructure to cut energy use; and using low-carbon technologies such as carbon capture, utilization, and storage to reduce emissions from existing coal-fired power plants. Many of those coal-fired plants are relatively young—less than 15 years old—the report points out.

“Rapid energy transition is not inevitable. It’s a path that needs to be chosen,” Birol said at the briefing. He noted that with governments driving more than 70% of global energy investments, governments play a key role in choosing such paths.

At the briefing, IEA chief energy modeler Laura Cozzi stressed the importance of rethinking infrastructure to make buildings more energy efficient. “Any strategy that wants to meet the Paris agreement has to focus, on the one hand, on what are we building new,” said Cozzi, who is the head of IEA’s division for energy demand outlook. On the other hand, existing infrastructure—including buildings, power plants, and factories—must be retrofitted to cut emissions, she said. “We need to act on the built infrastructure,” she explained. “If we don’t act on that, we will not make it.”

The Future of Nuclear Energy

Cozzi said that the trend in nuclear energy, which currently generates about 10% of energy globally and is vital for decarbonization and energy security, is another area of concern. In the United States, Europe, and Japan, nuclear power accounts for about one quarter of energy generation. However, most of the reactors in this class are nearing the end of their lifetime. Cozzi said that if policy makers don’t extend the lifetime of those reactors, by 2040 the share of nuclear energy will have gone down significantly, to about 5% of energy generation.

She explained that a significant decrease in the generation of low-emission nuclear energy will pose “an additional strain to keep up with decarbonization targets.” Cozzi noted, though, that China, Russia, and India are moving in the opposite direction and are increasing or plan to increase nuclear power installations.

Other Energy Trends

Other findings in the report show that energy demand in India will more than double by 2040, with India becoming the single largest source of global growth. In addition, China’s energy use will continue to grow but at a much lower rate than it did between 2000 and 2017.

The report also shows continued slow growth in overall oil demand, particularly in aviation, shipping, trucking, and petrochemical feedstock. “It’s true that the stronghold of oil demand in transport is coming under attack from fuel efficiency measures, from fuel switching, including electric cars,” Tim Gould, head of IEA’s division for energy supply and investment outlook, said at the briefing. “What that means in our projections is that if you just look at oil use for cars, then we see a peak in that segment of oil demand around the mid-2020s. But I like to underline that’s not the whole story for oil.”

One positive trend outlined in the report is that the number of people who have no access to electricity in the emerging world has dipped below 1 billion. As recently as 2000, 1.7 billion lacked access. That decline is due in large part to a turnaround in India, but two thirds of the population in sub-Saharan Africa still does not have access to electricity, according to the report.

Energy efficiency also provides a bright spot. The report’s new policies scenario shows that rising incomes and an additional 1.7 billion people could increase global energy demand by more than a quarter by 2040. However, that increase would be about twice as much without continued improvements in energy efficiency.

—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer

Citation: Showstack, R. (2018), World off course to meet emissions reduction goals, Eos, 99, Published on 15 November 2018.
Text © 2018. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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