Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Common Sense on Energy

The International Energy Agency issued a pre-Paris report yesterday which is both clarifying and distressing in its implications, but in any case worth looking at closely. The IEA, an independent agency founded in the oil shock days of the 1970s, includes as members most of the world's wealthy nations, and speaks authoritatively on matters of global energy resources. Here are some highlights:

  • Context: The IEA's executive director, renowned energy economist Fatih Birol, has stated (as have many others) that allowing greenhouse gas emissions to peak in 2030 (the target of many INDC plans submitted so far) will lead to "catastrophic" temperatures well above the dangerous 2C level. The IEA urges instead that the Paris agreement point toward peak emissions by 2020, and goes on to show how this could be done.
  • Their biggest proposal is to speed up the conversion, in massive coal-burning economies, from outmoded and wasteful coal plants to modern cleaner ones, while banning the construction of new (cheaper) old-fashioned coal plants. They call this a 'bridge' plan en route to fully renewable energy down the road.   
  • Other items in this 'Bridge Scenario' include increasing investment in renewable power generation by 50% (to $400 billion per year); regulating oil and gas production to prevent the spillage of methane, an unregulated practice that now causes huge methane pollution, a major source of greenhouse gas; and the phasing out of fossil-fuel subsidies by governments world-wide, now estimated to amount to $5 trillion annually. 
Is the IEA correct that these are feasible ways to accelerate the work of greenhouse gas reduction? You bet. Will they hold temperatures at acceptable levels? No one quite knows, but peaking at 2020 is a whole lot safer than 2030. 

The IEA also offered a set of three other 'pillars' to guide the Paris deliberations. These useful suggestions include: 1) endorsing the long-term goal of a carbon-free global economy (as the G7 leaders did last week); 2) instituting 5-year reviews starting in 2020 to check on progress, nation by nation, as a mechanism for 'raising ambitions'; and setting up a global tracking system to measure worldwide energy transition.  

So the IEA's report, though it breaks no real new ground, is a useful and rigorous summary of what the Paris conference might sensibly agree to. But is there political will to institute these proposals? That's the big question. And here's an anecdotal answer:

Last week, in a little-noted move, the US House Appropriations Committee removed the $3 billion the Obama administration is seeking to fund the Green Climate Fund for developing nations (already, at 3% of the globally agreed total, a disappointingly small sum). Instead, House Republicans proposed using the money for security at facilities like the Benghazi consulate (take that, candidate Clinton!), and proposed releasing funding for worldwide coal-based(!!) projects. Political will? Here at home, not so good.

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