The International Energy Agency Plan to Keep Emissions Dropping

As reported by The Guardian in June, the International Energy Agency (IEA) gives the world only six months in which to change the course of the carbon climate emergency and “prevent a post-lockdown rebound in greenhouse gas emissions that would overwhelm efforts to stave off climate catastrophe.”

IEA Special Report on Sustainable Recovery cover

“This year is the last time we have, if we are not to see a carbon rebound,” said Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency in releasing the joint IEA and IMF (International Monetary Fund) June 2020 Special Report on Sustainable Recovery.

This is a really big deal … though it’s still not enough.

As the IEA report says, the Covid-19 pandemic economic crisis — the largest since the great depression of the 1930s — is prompting governments around the world to develop recovery packages on a scale that will shape infrastructure and industries for decades to come.

The vast majority of the stimulus money so far announced by governments is set to prop up the fossil fuel economy. According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance (8 June 2020), more than half a trillion dollars worldwide — $509bn — is to be poured into high-carbon industries, with no conditions attached to ensure that they reduce their carbon output. A further $18.5bn will go into high-carbon industries provided they achieve climate targets. Only about $12.3bn is to go towards renewable energy.

The IEA plan would change that significantly.

The IEA was set up in 1974 in response to the Arab oil embargo, to keep the oil flowing around the world without interruption. The present IEA report was developed in consultation with an impressive list of many representatives of government, experts and businesses. This includes the fossil fuel industry, of course. This plan, properly, is for all energy-related greenhouse gases, not limited to CO2 from fossil fuel energy, as is the usual reporting from IEA.

The Special Report on Sustainable Recovery is for government economic stimulus packages over the next three years and it projects the effects by 2025-2030. The plan says that 2019 must be the peak year for global energy CO2 emissions. This is absolutely crucial, and is in line with the IPCC’s 2018 1.5ºC Report and all other climate change sources, that global emissions must decline rapidly from 2020. Well done, IEA.

But here’s the thing. While the IEA report says that CO2 emissions plunged by a global average of 17% in April 2020, compared with 2019, and projects an 8% emissions decline overall for 2020, it also says emissions have since surged again to within about 5% of 2019 levels. Lamentably, the drop in CO2 emissions we’ve witnessed during the pandemic shutdown was “accidental,” as it were, and not the result of international cooperation and effort to safeguard the future.

The purpose of the IEA’s plan is to prevent the expected rebound in global emissions from business-as-usual government stimulus packages, which it can do if followed. It could achieve, for the first time, a sustained decline in global energy greenhouse gas emissions, and therefore a sustained decline in global GHG emissions.   

The graph above shows the enormous difference in emissions by 2023 of the IEA plan compared to the current trend in emissions, which I calculate as a 4% per year difference.

This compares to a 5% annual CO2 decline outlined in the IPCC 2018 1.5°C Report and a 7.6% decline greenhouse gas emissions urged by UNEP (2019 Gap Report). Regrettably, staying on a 4% decline rate makes a temperature increase limit of 1.5°C by 2100 highly improbable if not impossible, and more in line with projections of 2°C by 2100, which will be reached before 2050 — and that is on course for planetary catastrophe.

That said, the IEA is to be highly commended for working out and recommending a detailed and readily feasible plan to keep global energy emissions declining from 2019 by this amount. It qualifies as a global climate emergency response. It is big turnaround, and because it is coming from the IEA, governments now have a plan that they can and have to implement immediately. Civil society organizations now have a plan that they must tell governments to implement immediately.

On energy investment, according to the IEA, investment in global fossil fuel liquids (mainly gasoline and diesel) drops nearly 30% in 2020 compared to 2019, as travelling is curtailed by pandemic measures. Under the IEA plan, investment in liquids (including biofuels) increases 30% from 2020 to 2030, with fossil fuel investment increasing almost 25% in that timeframe. Investment in biofuel and biogas is about the same in 2020 as in 2019, but it is about five times higher in 2030 — and these are sources of CO2. Investment in fossil fuel power for electricity drops 10% in 2020 from 2019, and is 50% lower by 2023. Renewable power drops 8% in 2020, and increases 90% by 2023. So electricity continues to switch from fossil fuels to renewables, but fossil fuel gasoline and diesel, gas-to-liquids and biofuels make a large post-pandemic investment increase, which is highly unfortunate.

To control the rise in oil, gasoline and diesel use, the Covid emissions drop shows we have to drastically curtail travelling and international trade, down to essentials. Avoiding global climate catastrophe requires greenhouse gas emissions to drop to near zero (IPCC 2018).

Interestingly the renewable energy industry fared better than fossil fuels during the pandemic economic slowdown.

The public, environmental, climate and justice organizations must be much more aggressive in demanding that economic stimulus be dedicated to the faster renewable energy development and production — and NOT to bail out the fossil fuel industry. Our future — a future — depends on it.

FOLLOW UP

It appears no attention is being paid to the IEA sustainable recovery plan nor the urging of climate change organizations. Major economy nations are throwing a lifeline to fossil fuel corporations during the coronavirus crisis rather than seizing this historic chance to shift to cleaner energies — and prevent global climate catastrophe. This information comes from Climate Home News reporting on a study being prepared for publication next month (August 2020) by 14 research groups.

Michael Lazarus is lead author of The Production Gap Report, which last year found the world was set to produce "about 50% more fossil fuels in 2030 than would be consistent with a goal of liming warming to 2ºC and 120% more than would be consistent with limiting warming to 1.5º." He explained that a similar disconnect between climate and energy policies is expected in an update of that report for 2020. 

According to Ivetta Gerasimchuk of the International Institute for Sustainable Development, what we're seeing is pretty much that what countries did before the Covid crisis they plan to keep doing, so there is more money going into fossil fuels than into clean energy.

In other words, the failing fossil fuel corporations are being bailed out so that fossil-fuel-dominated business-as-usual can continue — and that means global environmental and economic collapse in the near future.

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