“Rapid and widespread” energy system change needed to tackle global warming

Under country’s stated intentions, targets and existing measures, greenhouse gases will not peak before 2040, the International Energy Agency (IEA) has warned.

On 13 November, it published its World Energy Outlook 2019, in which it proposed a Sustainable Development Scenario, leading to sharp emissions cuts and alignment with the Paris Agreement’s aim of holding the rise in global temperatures to well below 2°C and pursuing efforts to limit it to 1.5°C. Under such a scenario, there would be “rapid and widespread” changes across all parts of the energy system with the sharp emissions cuts achieved through a range of fuels and technologies.

A swift increase in energy efficiency improvements was cited as being the key action to bring the world towards the Sustainable Development Scenario. The IEA noted that, at present, efficiency improvements were slowing with the 1.2% rate in 2018 substantially lower than the 3% rate that is needed. Elsewhere, electricity would be one of the few energy sources to see rising consumption over the next two decades with its share of final consumption overtaking oil by 2040. Wind and solar PV would be the key drivers behind the increase in energy generation.

However, the IEA warned that putting electricity systems on a sustainable path will require more than just adding greater numbers of renewables, stressing the world must focus on emissions “locked in” to existing systems. Citing Asia as an example, an area that has accounted for 90% of all coal-fired capacity built worldwide over the past 20 years, the report said that such plants could have long operational lifetimes ahead of them. It considered three options to bring down emissions from existing global coal fleet, including retrofitting plants with carbon capture, utilisation and storage or biomass co-firing equipment. It also suggested repurposing them to focus on providing system adequacy and flexibility, or simply to retire them earlier.

Dr Fatih Birol, Executive Director of the IEA, said: “The world urgently needs to put a laser-like focus on bringing down global emissions. This calls for a grand coalition encompassing governments, investors, companies and everyone else who is committed to tackling climate change. Our Sustainable Development Scenario is tailor-made to help guide the members of such a coalition in their efforts to address the massive climate challenge that faces us all.”

IEA