Oct 13, 2021 - Energy & Environment

Carbon emissions spiking despite clean energy surge

Factory at sunset in Cleveland, Ohio
Photo: Joe Sohm/Visions of America/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

This year is bringing the second-largest global carbon emissions jump on record as fossil fuel use rebounds after 2020's pandemic-fueled downturn, a new International Energy Agency report finds.

Why it matters: It shows how, despite surging renewables, the global energy system remains far from an emissions-slashing pathway that achieves Paris agreement goals for limiting global warming.

  • The IEA calls the World Energy Outlook — a data-rich, nearly 400-page look at policy, tech, investment, and supply trends and scenarios — a "handbook" for COP26, the key UN climate summit that begins Oct. 31 in Glasgow, Scotland.
  • The summit is aimed at spurring nations to take stronger steps to boost deployment of technologies including solar, electric cars, clean hydrogen, efficiency and more, while curtailing fossil fuels — especially coal.

Threat level: "The world's hugely encouraging clean energy momentum is running up against the stubborn incumbency of fossil fuels in our energy systems," IEA executive director Fatih Birol said in a statement.

  • He said the UN summit must provide a "clear and unmistakable signal" that nations are committed to "rapidly scaling up the clean and resilient technologies of the future."
  • "Public spending on sustainable energy in economic recovery packages has only mobilized around one‐third of the investment required to jolt the energy system onto a new set of rails," the report finds.

How it works: The report models scenarios ranging from emissions and temperature rise expected under nations' current policies, what happens if they actually implement existing pledges under the Paris agreement, and more.

  • It compares them to the Paris goals of limiting temperature rise to "well below" 2°C (3.6°F) compared to preindustrial levels, and ideally to 1.5°C (2.7°F) — benchmarks for avoiding some of the worst effects of climate change.

The big picture: If — and it's a huge if — nations meet their Paris pledges submitted and announced longer-term targets, energy-related emissions decline by 40% by 2050, IEA projects.

  • Clean energy investment and finance would double over the next decade, but it's "not sufficient to overcome the inertia of today’s energy system." Global temperatures rise is 2.1°C (3.9°F) in 2100 but still moving up.
  • However, even that assumes creating and implementing policies consistent with those commitments. "A lot more needs to be done by governments to fully deliver on their announced pledges," the report notes.
  • In contrast, under existing and announced policies, IEA projects temperature rise blowing past the Paris targets to reach 2.6°C (4.7°F) above preindustrial levels in 2100 and keep rising.

Yes, but: The report models investment and policies over the next 10 years that would set the world on a pathway to net-zero emissions in 2050 that keeps the 1.5°C target from slipping away.

  • These include a "massive" push toward electrification that sees, among other steps, a doubling of wind and solar deployment compared to what's foreseen under existing pledges.
  • Also on the menu: "relentless" focus on efficiency, more aggressive steps to cut methane emissions from oil-and-gas operations and tech innovation that sets the stage for post-2030 emissions cuts beyond what's achievable with existing technologies.

By the numbers: Getting on a 1.5°C pathway requires a "surge" in annual investment in clean energy projects and infrastructure to nearly $4 trillion annually by 2030, the IEA said.

Birol, however, notes: "The social and economic benefits of accelerating clean energy transitions are huge, and the costs of inaction are immense."

  • The report sees significant emissions cuts available at no extra costs to power consumers, and that energy efficiency gains save consumers money.
  • It also sees huge market opportunities for manufacturers of solar panels, batteries, hydrogen production equipment and more.

The intrigue: The report comes amid a recent surge in natural gas, power, oil and coal prices.

  • The IEA notes the "key reasons for these sharp increases in energy prices are not related to efforts to transition to clean energy."
  • But that "does not mean clean energy transitions in the years ahead will be free from volatility," the IEA adds.
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