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IEA responds to attacks

Whose opening lines are these: "The world’s energy system is at a crossroads. Current global trends in energy supply and consumption are patently unsustainable … but that can – and must – be altered.”

Sound like another renewables naysayer upholding the fossil-fuel status quo? That’s what the International Energy Agency is being accused of in a report picked up by the Guardian on Friday and endorsed by Grist today.

The IEA is slammed by an international group of legislators and scientists called Energy Watch, best known previously for their oil-has-peaked stance. The group’s new report, on wind-power prospects, is one of a handful it has to its name. In the wind report, the Guardian’s David Adam writes,

The experts … say the International Energy Agency (IEA) publishes misleading data on renewables, and that it has consistently underestimated the amount of electricity generated by wind power in its advice to governments. They say the IEA shows “ignorance and contempt” towards wind energy, while promoting oil, coal and nuclear as “irreplaceable” technologies.

Author Rudolph Rechsteiner, a Swiss MP, points to senior IEA staff from the fossil fuel industry and questions the good faith behind the agency’s annual World Energy Outlook – which is peer reviewed by about 200 experts, according to IEA chief economist Faith Birol. At its extreme, Rechsteiner’s report asks (slightly ungrammatically), “Is it this message that big companies and US presidents need to fight a war for oil, subsidies and profits, disguised as a ‘war on terrorism’?”

In the Energy Watch document itself, the only “misleading data” under critique, as far as I can see, are the under-projections of growth in wind-power capacity – and other numbers such as oil prices – in World Energy Outlooks since the 1990s. But the supposedly off-the-mark WEOs are badly misrepresented, says Birol, lead author of the 2008 WEO.

The IEA wouldn’t comment to Adam – their press office told me there wasn’t time – but Birol talked to reporters today. He explains that the WEO reports, like IPCC reports, don’t do forecasts. They are projections based on ‘what-if’ political scenarios.

A ‘reference’ IEA scenario predicts what will happen if current policies do not change. So if there are important policy changes after any given report, says Birol, its reference scenario will diverge from reality. Other, ‘alternative’, scenarios show a future where we start laying off fossil fuels and work our way towards, for example, a stable 450 ppm of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. These, as I understand them, are more like prescriptions than predictions – the IEA gives them out as policy advice to its 28 member countries.

Here’s the figure from the Energy Watch report lining up these scenarios against reality.


I couldn’t get Birol to talk about the discrepancies between reality and the so-called ‘forecasts’. It does appear here that each year’s ‘alternative’ scenario keeps underestimating the growth in wind capacity just before and after its publication (note that the 2008 WEO only has data through 2006 or 2007, and so on going back).

Which is good news. Rechsteiner can fairly claim that “detractors of wind energy” – whoever they may be – “have got it wrong.” Wind keeps growing fast.

But the IEA is no such detractor, says Birol. The importance of promoting renewables is a top conclusion of WEO 2008, and that’s clear “to anyone who can read English,” he says. “It’s ethically wrong to say that we are pushing for the reference scenario.”

Anna Barnett


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