For those of us who analyze the energy sector, the publication of the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) Annual Energy Outlook is a much anticipated event. It is the gold standard for the assessment and forecasting of the world energy system, albeit from the perspective of the High-Income OECD countries. For the past two years it has focused on the energy policies needed to curb climate change. This year I find its message very alarming.
In its 2009 Energy Outlook, the IEA developed a scenario that shows how the world’s energy system could evolve to the year 2035 so as to keep carbon dioxide (CO2)concentrations from exceeding 450 parts per million CO2 (equivalent). This is the plateau level consistent with an increase in global temperatures of at most 20 C. Last year this novel analysis showed that such a “450 Scenario” would require a massive shift in energy policies and investments. It gave me pause for thought. A year later, as the IEA develops its assessment, I am very worried.
Between the lines of its careful appraisal of the global energy situation, the IEA all but says that achieving the changes needed to hold global average temperature to a 20 C increase is almost impossible in the current global context. The IEA states that such a goal is still not “completely out of reach.” But, in a sentence that should be chilling to anyone familiar with the inflexibility of the world’s energy system, the IEA says: “the speed of the energy transformation that would need to occur after 2020 is such as to raise serious misgivings about the practical achievability of cutting emissions sufficiently to meet the 20 C goal.” In other words, unless global energy policies and investments undergo a huge and unprecedented change over the next few years, our energy system may be too far gone to allow us to curb climate change to levels that are generally agreed to be manageable.