The International Energy Agency was once a staid and conservative organization that people ignored because it was staid and conservative.
Now people ignore the IEA because it has become a blunt truth teller on oil and climate (see World’s top energy economist warns peak oil threatens recovery, urges immediate action: “We have to leave oil before oil leaves us”).
Last November, Climate Progress blogged on the IEA’s 2011 World Energy Outlook [WEO] bombshell warning: We’re Headed Toward 11°F Global Warming and “Delaying Action Is a False Economy.”
Fatih Birol is the IEA’s chief economist, and later gave a great talk at the Carnegie endowment on the WEO’s implications. You can watch it here (and view the transcript and download his PPT slides — I clipped the top image from the last slide).
Birol can’t really be considered a rabble-rouser — he worked for OPEC for 6 years before joining the IEA in 1995, so he was there during extended period of time when nobody was much paying attention to the IEA.
He had some blunt remarks on climate and energy (starting around minute 56):
Another point on climate change is about the two degrees. With the current policies in place, the world is perfectly on track to six degrees Celsius increasing the temperature, which is very bad news. And everybody, even school children, know this will have catastrophic implications for all of us.
Of course he means school children in other countries where they are taught the basic science (see “An Illustrated Guide to the Science of Global Warming Impacts: How We Know Inaction Is the Gravest Threat Humanity Faces“).
In the World Energy Outlook, we look at every year where we are, and we are perfectly on track with the six degrees – several years, we put a check next to that. And yet, world leaders have agreed in Copenhagen and we agreed in Cancun that we have to limit the temperature increase two degrees Celsius, which barely brings us to a sustainable trajectory.
So we wanted to look at in the World Energy Outlook, with the current energy infrastructure we have today, how much room, if any, is left to cope the two-degrees trajectory. Because when you build a power plant, it has a lifetime of 60 years, 50, 60 years. When you build a factory, 80 years. And throughout their lifetime, they are going to emit carbon dioxide emissions.
So we wanted to see, with the existing infrastructure, how much emissions they are going to emit, and how does it compare with the two-degrees trajectory.
Now, what we understand is, with the current power plants, current factories, current cars, current trucks, we have already 80 percent of the allowed emissions to us in a two-degrees trajectory will be eaten up with the existing power plants, existing cars and existing trucks without building anything, without building anything new. And with the current one, 80 percent.
It is like a – to make it simpler, we are coming to the lunchtime – the doctor gives you a diet, certain amount of calories you can have in one day. And this blue one is the – since we have two Turks here, you eat a very good Turkish baklava – (laughter) – and you have already 80 percent of your allotted calories are eaten up. Only 20 percent for the rest of the day or for the next 25 years.
In the context of, if you don’t do anything until 2015, 95 percent of the allowed emissions will be locked in. And if you do not do anything until the year 2017, we are going to use all the emissions which are permitted to us, we are going to consume them by the existing power plants, transmission lines, by the cars and everything. So therefore, we will lock in our future, which will be impossible to change, and the door to two degrees will be closed.
But in order in 2017 there are major, huge, new, clean-energy investment framework, you need much earlier to give strong signals to the investors to go forward that way before 2017. And for that, you need regulation such as the good news from Durban or something else or some government policies.
Here’s a related chart and some background on this from the WEO:
“On planned policies, rising fossil energy use will lead to irreversible and potentially catastrophic climate change”….
“Delaying action is a false economy: for every $1 of investment in cleaner technology that is avoided in the power sector before 2020, an additional $4.30 would need to be spent after 2020 to compensate for the increased emissions.”
The time to act is now (see “Study Confirms Optimal Climate Strategy: Deploy, Deploy, Deploy, Research and Develop, Deploy, Deploy, Deploy“ — and yes we need to do those simultaneously, the repetition is meant to represent the relative spending levels).
Finally, it’s worth noting what Birol, who was born in Ankara, Turkey, says about the relative responsibilities of the rich and poor countries (he gave this talk in the lead up to Durban):
In terms of negotiations, there is one argument that emerging countries are always underlining, say that when you look at responsibilities, you don’t look at today only, you look at the historical responsibilities.
You, rich countries, yes, Europe, you have been using a lot of coal, oil, gas, and putting a lot of carbon in the atmosphere since 100 years, as you see in this picture. And now, we have very little
responsibility there, and now you are telling us that we should have the same responsibility. This is not fair, by emerging countries, led by China.
And to be honest with you, when you look at this picture, they have a point, definitely they have a point. But it is changing. When we look at the next few years, we see that the Chinese historical emissions are overtaking Europe very soon, around 2015, and coming very close to the United States. And I can tell you that our China numbers may well be on the conservative side here.
So therefore, from a cumulative-emissions-perspective point of view, the argument coming from China and others may not be as strong as today and the next years to come.
India, according to our analysis in the World Energy Outlook, became this year the third-largest emitter, following China and the United States, overtaking Japan and Russia.
On a per-capita basis, another argument, China is overtaking Europe in the next four years, even on a per-capita basis. This is the other argument coming from the developing countries. Don’t look at volumes, but look at the per-capita basis, because we are 1 billion people, which is, again, a valid point.
But in our per-capita basis, China is overtaking European Union very soon and OECD.
So what I want to say here is that this is true that the U.S. and Europe has historical responsibilities, but the picture is changing very rapidly that even the historical responsibilities will be redefined again and discussed.
The U.S. has the greatest moral obligation to reduce emissions sharply ASAP. Europe also has a strong obligation — but then Europe is acting and we aren’t. China now, too, has a responsibility to slow the growth of emissions and then reverse the trend entirely by no later than the early 2020s.
If we don’t change direction soon, we may end up where we are headed. And that would be catastrophic, as school children around the world know.