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IEA calls for global action on climate change

A report by the IEA says the world must do more to prevent rising temperatures

The world must do more to halt rising temperatures as global Greenhouse Gas emissions (GHG) hit record levels the International Energy Agency (IEA) said.

At the launch of its new report, Redrawing the Energy-Climate Map, the IEA warned that we are not on track to limit global temperature rises to within two degrees Celsius. This is the critical temperature rise level at which climate change scientists say catastrophic climate change could ensue on a global scale.

The IEA said new estimates for global energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in 2012 showed a 1.4% increase globally, reaching a record high of 31.6 gigatonnes (GT). IEA executive director Maria van der Hoeven said this was unchartered territory and we must act to prevent further rises. "Despite efforts to mitigate climate change we've recently passed a grim milestone," van der Hoeven said. "That milestone is symbolic of our failure to fulfil our own national and international pledges to limit a rise in global temperature increases over the long term." 

Speaking at the report's launch in London, van der Hoeven said that if we continue to emit such high levels of GHGs then global temperatures are likely to rise by between 3.6 degrees Celsius and 5.3 degrees Celsius. This could have disastrous environmental consequences, such as rising sea levels, and would extract a huge economic and social cost.

In the US, a switch from coal to gas-fired power generation has helped to reduce the country's emissions by 200 million tonnes, bringing them back to a level last seen in the mid1990s. The IEA warned however this was mainly because of an abundance of cheap natural gas, rather than clean energy policies, which had accounted for the fall.

If US Henry Hub prices rise above $5 per million British thermal Units (Btu), up from around $3.80/m Btu, then coal could look more price-competitive which would allow it to make a comeback, the IEA said. This is unless government policy restrictions are put in place to prevent it. 

Although last year China emitted the highest amount of CO2, at 300m tonnes, the increase was one of lowest in a decade, the IEA said. This was because of an increased use of renewable energy and improvements in energy intensity.

GHG emissions in Europe fell by 50m tonnes, the IEA said, despite increased coal use in some countries.

GHG emissions in Japan increased by 70m tonnes, around 6%, mainly because of its idled nuclear capacity following the Fukushima meltdown in 2011. This is the highest rise in Japan's GHG levels for two decades, the IEA said.

Four point plan

In its "4-for-2 degree Celsius" scenario the IEA said there were four main ways in which we can stop the growth in global GHG emissions by 2020 at no net economic cost. Reducing global CO2 emissions by around 3.1 GT would be around 80% of the GHG savings needed to ensure we stay within a two degree Celsius rise.

Improving energy efficiency in buildings, industry and transport could account for nearly half of the emissions reductions in 2020, the IEA said, with any additional investment required "being more than offset by reduced spending on fuel bills".

Limiting the use of inefficient coal power plants could account for GHG savings of more than 20% of the 3.1 GT and help curb local air pollution.

Halving methane emissions from the upstream oil and gas industry in 2020 would provide around 18% of GHG savings and cutting fossil fuel subsidies would account for the remaining 12% of the reduction in global emissions.

Fatih Birol, the IEA's chief economist and author of the report, said these measures could stop the growth in GHG emissions by the end of this decade at virtually no economic cost. "Rapid and widespread adoption could act as a bridge to further action, buying precious time while international climate negotiations continue," Birol said.

Winners and Losers

Birol said that the energy sector, which accounts for around two-thirds of global GHG emissions, must increase its resilience to the physical impacts of climate change. "The energy sector is not immune to climate change," Birol said. "It must adapt."

Offshore oil and gas production will also be affected by an increased number of cyclones if global temperatures significantly increase, the IEA said. This could leave exposed offshore oil and gas infrastructure vulnerable to damage and increase costs for producers.

There will also be an increased need for power plant cooling in the electricity sector while water supplies will be less available.

Keeping global temperatures to within a two degree Celsius rise could however provide a boost for low carbon energy projects. Revenues for existing renewable projects and nuclear power plants could increase by $1.8 trillion collectively until 2035, the IEA said, if  the share of power generation from renewables increases from around 20% today to 27% in 2020. This would offset a similar decline in revenue from phasing out inefficient coal plants.

The IEA said no oil or gas field currently in production would need to shut down prematurely, to limit the temperature rise. But some fields which have not yet started production may not be developed before 2035, which could mean that up to 6% of proven oil and gas reserves may not recover their exploration costs.

Delaying the move to a two degrees Celsius trajectory until 2020 would also substantially increase the risk of assets needing to be retired early, idled or retrofitted, the IEA said.

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) could act mitigate some of these effects for oil and gas assets, reducing the risk of stranded assets and enabling more fossil fuel to be commercialised. But Birol admitted that CCS was at distant prospect with no commercial scale operations anywhere in the world.

The key message from the IEA was that despite an increase in financial costs to implement energy efficiency measures and CCS, the environmental costs would be far greater if we don't make them happen."The question is not whether we can afford the necessary investments given the current economic climate. The fact is we simply cannot afford to delay," van der Hoeven said. "We must not let governments off the hook."

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