The International Energy Agency (IEA) today implored policy-makers to focus on energy efficiency measures, to buy a little time before the world resigns itself to global warming of more than 2 °C.
Presenting the agency’s 2012 World Energy Outlook in London, the IEA’s chief economist Fatih Birol told reporters that he could see a “growing momentum in many countries to push the energy efficiency button”, but also that energy efficiency remained an “epic failure” in most nations’ energy policies. “The chances are slimmer and slimmer of avoiding a 2 °C rise,” he said. The IEA likes to talk about the time when existing factories, buildings and cars will ‘lock in’ greenhouse gas emissions that will push atmospheric carbon dioxide above 450 parts per million, the target thought to give an even chance of limiting global warming to 2 °C. Last year, it projected that time would come by 2017. Today, the agency said that energy efficiency measures could push the lock-in date out five years to 2022.
Each year the World Energy Outlook is a mixture of pragmatism and idealism. In solely pragmatic terms, the world’s energy demand will rise by a third to 2035, mainly driven by newly affluent consumers in China, India and the Middle East, the IEA projects. “The centre of gravity in global energy use is shifting to the East,” said Maria van der Hoeven, the IEA’s executive director. Yet by adopting measures such as fuel-economy standards, new building codes and requirements for more efficient power plants, by 2035 the world could halve that projected increase. These measures are all economically justified, Birol added: they would pay back more than they cost.
Asked why nations were not concentrating on energy efficiency, Birol said it was because governments were not sufficiently organized to push these policies. Energy ministries were often left to tackle the problem alone; but they needed to work together with policy-makers in the areas of finance, construction, industry and transport, he said. “Climate change is slipping down the agenda, and the costs of inaction are rising,” he added.
The IEA’s call came against a backdrop of significant geopolitical shifts in oil and gas production. “High prices and new technologies are unlocking America’s unconventional oil and gas resources,” said van der Hoeven, The United States, today dependent on other countries for around 20% of its energy needs, will become almost self-sufficient by 2035, the IEA said (in stark contrast to the increasing energy dependence of most other major nations). The US will surpass Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest oil producer by 2020, and will start to export natural gas – all thanks to the recent boom in production of unconventional fossil fuels. Meanwhile, Iraq’s oil production is set to surge, with the country playing a pivotal role in global oil markets.
But Birol, keen to concentrate on energy efficiency, pointed out that America’s increasing oil independence was not just because of its greater production of unconventional oil. Almost 45% of the nation’s projected drop in oil imports would come down to new automobile efficiency standards announced by president Barack Obama last year, he said.
Despite a rising share for renewables, fossil fuels would remain dominant, the agency added. In its central scenario to 2035, oil, coal and gas together make up 75% of the global energy mix (down from 81% today). They are supported by subsidies that rose 30% to $523 billion last year, mainly due to increased subsidies in Middle Eastern countries. And after the Fukushima disaster, the agency has lowered its projections of the energy from nuclear power by 10%.
For all the increased energy use, some 1.3 billion people mainly in sub-Saharan Africa and south-east Asia still have no access to electricity, the IEA said; it projects that this will fall only slightly to 1 billion by 2030. “We think this is economically, socially and morally unacceptable,” Birol said.