In a surprising shift in rhetoric, Fatih Birol, executive director of the world’s most influential energy think tank, has recently stated that the world cannot expand fossil fuel supply and still meet the goals of the Paris climate agreement.
Birol, from the International Energy Agency (IEA), told The Guardian on November 13: “We have no room to build anything that emits CO2.” His statement was made at a press conference in Paris to mark the launch of the IEA’s World Energy Outlook 2018 report.
“We have reviewed all current and under-construction energy infrastructure around the world — such as power plants, refineries, cars and trucks, industrial boilers, and home heaters — and find they will account for some 95% of all emissions permitted under international climate targets in coming decades,” Birol said.
These assertions repeat what others’ analysis of climate science and carbon math has already clearly shown. RAN’s good friends at Oil Change International came to this conclusion in their path-breaking The Sky’s Limit report in September 2016. Since then, RAN has been taking this message to the executives of the banks that are insisting on financing new new tar sands pipelines, coal plants and other high-carbon projects.
But it is quite a surprise to hear this from the IEA, a notoriously pro-fossil fuel agency that was set up in the wake of the 1973 oil crisis to promote the interests of the rich oil-consuming nations.
Birol was referring to the Paris Agreement’s upper limit of 2° Celsius of warming. This means that keeping warming to 1.5°C — which the UN’s scientists have recently shown is essential to avoiding climate catastrophe — will require not only a halt to any new energy infrastructure, but also rapidly replacing a lot of existing infrastructure with clean alternatives. Vested interests will of course fight tooth and nail to keep their coal plants and oil refineries open — all the more reason to not build these climate wreckers in the first place.
The IEA’s analysis is based on a number of scenarios of possible energy futures. These scenarios have been much criticized as reflecting more what the fossil fuel industry wants the future to be, than what climate science says it must be. Even the IEA’s most Paris-aligned scenario in their World Energy Outlook 2018 is still completely insufficient.
The IEA claims that this “Sustainable Development Scenario” would keep warming below 1.8°C — but only if after 2040 we are able to deploy huge amounts of “negative emissions.” This means replacing much of the world’s cropland and forests with plantations of trees which are later burned to generate power, and with the resulting carbon emissions captured and buried underground. It also means deploying vast amounts of technologies that can suck carbon dioxide out of the air. These technologies currently exist only either as small and prohibitively expensive pilot projects, or in energy analysts’ wishful thinking. Oil Change International’s Lorne Stockman calls them “giant carbon-sucking unicorns.”
Yet even if the fossil fuel industry is able to persuade/bribe governments to risk the future of the planet on the possibility of herds of giant carbon-sucking unicorns falling to earth and getting to work, the IEA still foresees the need for a rapid energy transition.
The Sustainable Development Scenario requires that by 2040:
- the burning of coal for electricity falls by 80% globally;
- “all economically viable avenues to improve efficiency” are pursued so that overall energy demand in 2040 is kept at today’s level despite economic growth and a higher population; and
- the share of renewables in electricity generation increases from 25% to 67%; in heating from 10% to 25%; and in transport (via renewably powered electric vehicles) from 3.5% to 19%.
Obviously it would be prudent to assume that the unicorns will not appear and that the energy transition actually needs to be a lot faster than this. The recent UN report gives four pathways for staying under 1.5°. Only one of the pathways is mostly unicorn-free, and it shows that by 2030 (so a decade before the IEA’s benchmark — and only 12 years from now) renewables need to meet 60% of electricity needs, and that coal, oil and fossil gas use all need to be sharply reduced (by 78%, 37% and 25% respectively).
While some oil and gas multinationals, particularly in Europe, have made baby steps toward a shift to clean energy, overall the world’s oil, fossil gas and coal companies have made it abundantly clear that they will not willingly start the massive, rapid transition of their businesses that is needed. It is therefore up to the governments and financial institutions which regulate, own, fund and insure the fossil fuel sector to force the fossil giants to stop building new projects and put in place a long-term plan to shut down the ones that are already operating. And of course up to the global climate movement in its many forms to force politicians, bankers and insurers to do this.