The world is not on track to meet the target agreed by governments to limit the long term rise in the average global temperature to 2 degrees Celsius (°C).

International Energy Agency, June 2013

The International Energy Agency (IEA) is well known for its annual World Energy Outlook, released towards the end of each year. In concert with the WEO come one or more special publications and this year is no exception. Just released is a new report which brings the IEA attention back squarely on the climate issue, Redrawing the Energy-Climate Map. The IEA have traditionally focused on the climate issue through their 450 ppm scenario. While they continue to do that this time, they are also going further with a more pragmatic model for thinking about emissions, that being the “trillion tonne” approach. I have discussed this at some length in previous posts.

The report looks deeply into the current state of climate affairs and as a result fires a warning shot across the bows of current national and UNFCCC efforts to chart a pathway in keeping with the global goal of limiting warming to 2 °C above pre-industrial levels. The IEA argue that we are on the edge of the 2 °C precipice and recommends a series of immediate steps to take to at least stop us falling in. With the catchy soundbite of “ 4 for 2° “, the IEA recommend four immediate steps in the period from now to 2020;

  1. Rapid improvements in energy efficiency, particularly for appliances, lighting, manufacturing machinery, road transport and within the built environment.
  2. Phasing out of older inefficient coal fired power stations and restricting less efficient new builds.
  3. Reductions in fugitive methane emissions in the oil and gas industry.
  4. Reductions in fossil fuel subsidies.

These will supposedly keep some hope of a 2°C outcome alive, although IEA makes it clear that much more has to be done in the 2020s and beyond. However, it didn’t go so far as to say that the 2° patient is dead, rather it is on life support.

I had some role in all this and you will find my name in the list of reviewers on page 4 of the report. I also attended a major workshop on the issue in March where I presented the findings of the Shell New Lens Scenarios and as a result advocated for the critical role that carbon capture and storage (CCS) must play in the solution set.

As a contributor, I have to say that I am a bit disappointed with the outcome of the report, although it is understandable how the IEA has arrived where it has. There just isn’t the political leadership available today to progress the things that really need to be done, so we fall back on things that sound about right and at least are broadly aligned with what is happening anyway. As a result, we end up with something of a lost opportunity and more worryingly support an existing political paradigm which doesn’t fully recognize the difficulty of the issue. By arguing that we can keep the door open to 2°C with no impact on GDP and by only doing things that are of immediate economic benefit, the report may even be setting up more problems for the future.

My concern starts with the focus on energy efficiency as the principal interim strategy for managing global emissions. Yes, improving energy efficiency is a good thing to do and cars and appliances should be built to minimize energy use, although always with a particular energy price trajectory in mind. But will this really reduce global emissions and more importantly will it make any difference by 2020?

My personal view on these questions is no. I don’t think actions to improve local energy efficiency can reduce global emissions, at least until global energy demand is saturated. Currently, there isn’t the faintest sign that we are even close to saturation point. There are still 1-2 billion people without any modern energy services and some 4 billion people looking to increase their energy use through the purchase of goods and services (e.g. mobility) to raise their standard of living. Maybe 1-1.5 billion people have reached demand saturation, but even they keep surprising us with new needs (e.g. Flickr now offers 1 TB of free storage for photographs). Improvements in efficiency in one location either results in a particular service becoming cheaper and typically more abundant or it just makes that same energy available to any of the 5 billion people mentioned above at a slightly lower price. Look at it the other way around, which oil wells, coal mines or gas production facilities are going to reduce output over the next seven years because the energy efficiency of air conditioners is further improved. The fossil fuel industry is very supply focused and with the exception of substantial short term blips (2008 financial crisis), just keeps producing. Over a longer timespan lower energy prices will change the investment portfolio and therefore eventual levels of production, but in the short term there is little chance of this happening. This is a central premise of the book I recently reviewedThe Burning Question.

Even exciting new technologies such as LED lighting may not actually reduce energy use, let alone emissions. Today, thanks to LEDs, it’s not just the inside of buildings where we see lights at night, but outside as well. Whole buildings now glow blue and red, lit with millions of LEDs that each use a fraction of the energy of their incandescent counterparts – or it would be a fraction if incandescent lights had even been used to illuminate cityscapes on the vast scale we see today. The sobering reality is that lighting efficiency has only ever resulted in more global use of lighting and more energy and more emissions, never less.

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An analysis from Sandia National Laboratories in the USA looks at this phenomena and concludes;

The result of increases in luminous efficacy has been an increase in demand for energy used for lighting that nearly exactly offsets the efficiency gains—essentially a 100% rebound in energy use.

 I don’t think this is limited to just lighting. Similar effects have been observed in the transport sector. Even in the built environment, there is evidence that as efficiency measures improve home heating, average indoor temperatures rise rather than energy use simply falling.

The second recommendation focuses on older and less efficient coal fired power stations. In principle this is a good thing to do and at least starts to contribute to the emissions issue. This is actually happening in the USA and China today, but is it leading to lower emissions globally? In the USA national emissions are certainly falling as natural gas has helped push older coal fired power stations to close, but much of the coal that was being burnt is now being exported, to the extent that global emissions may not be falling. Similarly in China, older inefficient power stations are closing, but the same coal is going to newer plants where higher efficiency just means more electricity – not less emissions. I discussed the efficiency effect in power stations in an old posting, showing how under some scenarios increasing efficiency may lead to even higher emissions over the long term. For this recommendation to be truly effective, it needs to operate in tandem with a carbon price.

The third and fourth recommendations make good sense, although in both instances a number of efforts are already underway. In any case their contribution to the whole is much less than the first two. In the case of methane emissions, reductions now are really only of benefit if over the longer term CO2 emissions are also managed. If aggressive CO2 mitigation begins early, and is maintained until emissions are close to zero, comprehensive methane (and other Short Lived Climate Pollutants – SLCP) mitigation substantially reduces the long-term risk of exceeding 2˚C (even more for 1.5˚C). By contrast, if CO2 emissions continue to rise past 2050, the climate warming avoided by SLCP mitigation is quickly overshadowed by CO2-induced warming. Hence SLCP mitigation can complement aggressive CO2 mitigation, but it is neither equivalent to, nor a substitute for, near-term CO2 emission reductions (see Oxford Martin Policy Brief – The Science and Policy of Short Lived Climate Pollutants)

After many lengthy passages on the current bleak state of affairs with regards global emissions, the weak political response and the “4 for 2°C “ scenario, the report gets to a key finding for the post 2020 effort, that being the need for carbon capture and storage. Seventy seven pages into the document and it finally says;

In relative terms, the largest scale-up, post-2020, is needed for CCS, at seven times the level achieved in the 4-for-2 °C Scenario, or around 3 100 TWh in 2035, with installation in industrial facilities capturing close to 1.0 Gt CO2 in 2035.

Not surprisingly, I think this should have been much closer to page one (and I have heard from the London launch, which I wasn’t able to attend, that the IEA do a better job of promoting CCS in the presentation). As noted in the recently released Shell New lens Scenarios, CCS deployment is the key to resolving the climate issue over this century. We may use it on a very large scale as in Mountains or a more modest scale as in Oceans, but either way it has to come early and fast. For me this means that it needs to figure in the pre-2020 thinking, not with a view to massive deployment as it is just too late for that, but at least with a very focused drive on delivery of several large scale demonstration projects in the power sector. The IEA correctly note that there are none today (Page 77 – “there is no single commercial CCS application to date in the power sector or in energy-intensive industries”).

Of course large scale deployment of CCS from 2020 onwards will need a very robust policy framework (as noted in Box 2.4) and that will also take time to develop. Another key finding that didn’t make it to page one is instead at the bottom of page 79, where the IEA state that;

Framework development must begin as soon as possible to ensure that a lack of appropriate regulation does not slow deployment.

For those that just read the Executive Summary, the CCS story is rather lost. It does get a mention, but is vaguely linked to increased costs and protection of the corporate bottom line, particularly for coal companies. The real insight of its pivotal role in securing an outcome as close as possible to 2°C doesn’t appear.

So my own “ 2 for 2°C before 2020“ would be as follows;

  1. Demonstration of large-scale CCS in the power sector in key locations such as the EU, USA, China, Australia, South Africa and the Gulf States. Not all of these will be operational by 2020, but all should be well underway. At least one “very large scale” demonstration of CCS should also be underway (possibly at the large coal to liquids plants in South Africa).
  2. Development and adoption of a CCS deployment policy framework, with clear links coming from the international deal to be agreed in 2015 for implementation from 2020.

But that might take some political courage!