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Carbon Brief Staff

Carbon Brief Staff

12.11.2013 | 1:55pm
ScienceHow the IEA says we can avoid six degrees of warming – In three graphs
SCIENCE | November 12. 2013. 13:55
How the IEA says we can avoid six degrees of warming – In three graphs

The world could be heading for six degrees of global warming this century if significant action isn’t taken to address greenhouse gas emissions, the International Energy Agency (IEA) has warned.

Speaking at the launch of its new report, IEA executive director Maria van den Hoeven said:

“Greenhouse gas emissions – two thirds of which are from the energy sector – are still on a dangerous course, and if we stay on the current path we will not come close to the internationally agreed goal of limiting the rise of global temperatures to two degrees”.

The IEA’s latest ‘World Energy Outlook’ will make challenging reading for those attending the ongoing UNFCCC climate conference in Warsaw, where policymakers are discussing long term climate goals.

The full report runs to almost 700 pages, and contains an exhaustingly detailed look at the world’s energy systems. Here’s the precis.

Six degrees warming

Unless there’s some swift action, limiting global warming to two degrees is unlikely, the IEA says. We could see six degrees of warming by the end of the century if current emissions trends continue, it warns – well beyond the levels of warming that would result in significant social and environmental damage, according to the World Bank and other analysts.

IEA WEO fig21 elec

On current trends, the IEA projects the world will very nearly have burnt enough carbon to provide more than two degrees of global warming by 2035.

IEA chief economist Fatih Birol told the launch event:

“In the last hundred years or so we have already used about two thirds of our allowance [of the carbon budget]. And if we don’t change our policies in line with our numbers … The remaining budget will be very, very, small.”

The IEA’s analysis echoes the recent IPCC report, which warned of a limited remaining carbon budget.

Developed country responsibility

Much of the IEA’s analysis examines future scenarios of global energy use, and the standard caveat about predicting the future of such complex systems applies.

Nevertheless, the report says the big picture is fairly clear – there is a “growing disconnect” between governments actions to address climate change and the requirements of meeting the two degree target.

Because it isn’t optimistic that goal will be met, the IEA focuses on a scenario where the world makes just 30 per cent of the necessary emissions cuts. It’s not clear from the new report how much warming that could result in, but the same scenario in the IEA’s last report – the ‘new policies scenario’ – suggested such emissions could lead to a temperature rise of 3.6 degrees.  The action required to keep warming to even that level requires significant commitment from world governments, however.

The chart below shows countries’ share of emissions in the new policies scenario. The shrinking blue chunk shows that developed countries – in particular the EU – are expected to reduce emissions the most to counteract growing developing country emissions.

IEA WEO fig 214 elec

The IEA projects China’s share of emissions growing up to 2020, but starting to stabilise towards 2035 – with India taking over as the most dominant source of growing energy demand.

Under the IEA’s projections, China becomes the largest renewable energy producer in 2035, taking over from the EU today – a scenario which would significantly change the dynamic of international climate negotiations.

Energy efficiency is kind of a big deal

But a switch from fossil fuels to renewables isn’t the most significant change the IEA envisages.

It says reducing energy demand is the single most effective way of reducing global emissions by 2035. If the energy efficiency policies governments are currently proposing are implemented, the IEA says energy saving measures could provide 42 per cent of energy-related emissions reductions by 2020 – as the graph below shows.

IEA WEO fig716 elec

Birol claims energy efficiency policies have been the real success story of the last decade. Last year alone, he says, energy efficiency improvements reduced the amount of energy people used at four times the average rate achieved over the last decade.

Focusing the debate

The IEA’s analysis is timed to catch the attention of delegates in Warsaw.

It suggests that developing countries still need to shoulder most of the emissions reduction burden; that India will be as important in emissions terms as China; and that for all the headline-grabbing of power generation policies, energy efficiency deserves as much international focus.

As with many other reports that assess progress against emissions reduction goals, however, the top line message remains that the world is going to easily miss the two degrees target without significantly more progress on cutting emissions.

Update 12/11: The statement on India and China's emissions post-2020 has been clarified.

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