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Executive director of the International Energy Agency, Faith Birol (center). Photo: Riccardo De Luca/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

A fascinating battle is flaring over the International Energy Agency's multi-decade projections of changes in the global energy mix.

Why it matters: There's a metaphysical question at the core of it — whether IEA's closely watched reports reflect policy and investment trends, or shape them.

  • If it's the latter as some critics contend, IEA could be inadvertently hindering efforts to greatly speed up the low-carbon transformation.
  • But several experts have pushed back hard against that idea.

Driving the news: This month a group of prominent scientists, investors, advocates and others wrote to IEA pushing for a revamp of the annual World Energy Outlook (WEO), which provides various scenarios for the energy future through 2040.

  • They want IEA to make even clearer that the "new policies scenario" (NPS), which models current and announced national policies and shows fossil fuels retain a huge share, will lead to warming way beyond targets in the Paris agreement.
  • They also want revisions to the WEO's climate-friendly "sustainable development scenario" to demonstrate "the full range of ambition of the Paris goals and make this the central reference of the WEO." This should include a "reasonable probability (66%) of limiting warming to 1.5ºC."
  • Signers of the letter, first reported by the Financial Times, include former top UN climate official Christiana Figueres, climate scientist James Hansen, officials with investment houses Hermes and Allianz, and dozens of others.

Threat level: The letter argues that the NPS, which shows fossil fuels meeting 74% of global energy demand in 2040, helps to shape reality. It states...

"We recognize that it has always been your intent to warn policymakers of the insufficiency of the NPS, but given the central role it plays in the WEO, most users interpret this scenario as the guiding one."

The other side: IEA responded by emphasizing its efforts to hasten the transition to a cleaner energy mix and defended the WEO's modeling of climate stabilization scenarios.

  • They're cautioning against taking the wrong message from the NPS, noting it's a "mirror reflecting policies."
  • It is "not a normative scenario or an outcome that we would like to see," IEA said in an email last week, adding, "we have consistently used this scenario to highlight the need for much stronger policy action."
  • IEA executive director Fatih Birol posted an open letter Friday responding to the criticisms.

What they're saying: Here's some of the pushback against the letter...

  • Colorado School of Mines professor Morgan Bazilian, responding to the FT story, called the discussion "utterly confused" via Twitter. He said it represents a "fundamental misunderstanding" of modeling and the IEA's role, and a "misallocation of blame."
  • Former WEO team member Hannah Daly said via Twitter, "As a former WEO team member I can’t express how frustrating it is to see WEO scenarios so badly misrepresented in this letter. That it goes so far as to blame WEO for policy inaction is utterly wrong."

But, but, but: Others say that IEA isn't just a messenger and argue that their outlooks shape corporate decisions.

  • Stephen Kretzmann of the advocacy group Oil Change International makes that case in this Twitter exchange with Jason Bordoff, who heads a Columbia University energy think tank and agrees with critics of the letter. Kretzmann says fossil fuel companies use the reports to "pretend and persuade policymakers that the future in which they get more profit and retain power is inevitable."
  • Bloomberg columnist Liam Denning, in a part of a wide-ranging piece yesterday, leaned in that direction too. He cautioned that IEA can't be blamed for how its scenarios get used and abused, but then writes that the WEO is nonetheless used as a roadmap.
  • "If its scenarios point a certain way, then investments will be made accordingly in such things as power plants, pipelines and oil and gas fields, facts on the ground with multi-decade lifespans," Denning writes.

Go deeper

Tech scrambles to derail inauguration threats

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Tech companies are sharing more information with law enforcement in a frantic effort to prevent violence around the inauguration, after the government was caught flat-footed by the Capitol siege.

Between the lines: Tech knows it will be held accountable for any further violence that turns out to have been planned online if it doesn't act to stop it.

Dave Lawler, author of World
2 hours ago - World

Uganda's election: Museveni declared winner, Wine claims fraud

Wine rejected the official results of the election. Photo: Sumy Sadruni/AFP via Getty

Yoweri Museveni was declared the winner of a sixth presidential term on Saturday, with official results giving him 59% to 35% for Bobi Wine, the singer-turned-opposition leader.

Why it matters: This announcement was predictable, as the election was neither free nor fair and Museveni had no intention of surrendering power after 35 years. But Wine — who posed a strong challenged to Museveni, particularly in urban areas, and was beaten and arrested during the campaign — has said he will present evidence of fraud. The big question is whether he will mobilize mass resistance in the streets.

Off the Rails

Episode 1: A premeditated lie lit the fire

Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Beginning on election night 2020 and continuing through his final days in office, Donald Trump unraveled and dragged America with him, to the point that his followers sacked the U.S. Capitol with two weeks left in his term. Axios takes you inside the collapse of a president with a special series.

Episode 1: Trump’s refusal to believe the election results was premeditated. He had heard about the “red mirage” — the likelihood that early vote counts would tip more Republican than the final tallies — and he decided to exploit it.

"Jared, you call the Murdochs! Jason, you call Sammon and Hemmer!”

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