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International Energy Agency draws up climate plan

Ahead of the COP 21 conference in Paris, the International Energy Agency has published a report on carbon emissions

With the Conference of the Parties’ next big climate-change event taking place in Paris this December, the International Energy Agency has brought out a report on carbon emissions and what the energy industry – which today accounts for over two-thirds of them – can do to limit them. The alternative is to risk the average global temperature rising to no more than 2 degrees centigrade which is seen as a dangerous level.

Before COP 21 though, the energy ministries of the IEA’s 29 member states will meet in November and the IEA hopes that the report will have brought them into alignment. “Time is of the essence,” said the IEA’s CEO Maria van der Hoeven at the report’s launch in London 15 June. IEA chief economist Fatih Birol said it was the IEA’s duty to produce its thoughts as COP 21 approaches. And any agreement in Paris needs to have energy at its core or risk failure, he said.

The report says that in the absence of prompt and determined additional action, there will also inevitably come a point at which keeping global warming below 2 Celsius is no longer feasible.

The last World Energy Outlook special report to cover climate change was in 2013. Since then, the precipitous fall in oil prices has pulled the carpet from under a number of efficiency measures especially in the transportation sector, affecting also gas to liquids, making it harder to cut emissions. On the other hand, van der Hoeven says that lower oil prices theoretically enable the phasing out of fossil fuel subsidies. These create demand that would not exist if consumers were exposed to their market value.

And in Europe, the rise of subsidized renewables and the falling price of coal has pushed gas, as a fuel for power generation, to the margins in many countries. The IEA hopes –- in its Bridge Scenario -- that the share of gas will rise from 22% to 24% from 2013 to 2030 while coal falls from 41% to 24%.

The UK government has already responded to the IEA saying the report “clearly shows we need to seize the economic opportunities and urgently tackle climate change.”  But that is a long way from reaching an agreement on which countries should bear more of the burden of lower carbon energy than others -- suggesting that a lot of pain is on the way if an agreement is reached.

While the IEA’s data is perhaps the best that may be achieved, some countries are more opaque than others; and the world will not stay still while the target date approaches. It may be that the measures to address the data will prove woefully inadequate or conversely unnecessarily austere. The IEA wants COP 21 to agree five-yearly monitoring of the effects that the measures are having.

The report lists a number of measures that can be taken without the need for new technology or limiting economic growth but at the same time it says that carbon capture and storage is vital to the project. 

On the basis of the data produced from the existing projects and the unexpectedly low carbon price, that is an impossibility: economic technology does not now exist, and Birol concedes that CCS is a longer term way of enabling coal-fired power to continue. The IEA is keen to see a higher carbon price but agnostic on the method of achieving it such as through trading – by creating a shortage, which some countries in the EU have opposed –- a carbon tax or some other method.

But even so, not every country has the geology for carbon storage, which is typically suited to depleted gas fields where sandstone absorb it. That might not be possible in some countries where coal is already king, such as China.

China however is also building half of the world’s new nuclear fleet and Birol is expecting technology costs to fall and Chinese lessons to be exported to countries that used to make their own plants, such as France and Germany where nuclear programmes have been halted. “Nuclear is part of our scenario,” said van der Hoeven. With 13% of the global power generation mix by 2030, it will have gained 2 percentage points on 2013.

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