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Home > Blogs > Anthony Harrington > Goodbye to limiting climate change to 2°, cue storms! Part Two

Goodbye to limiting climate change to 2°, cue storms! Part Two

Goodbye to limiting climate change to 2%, cue storms! Part Two Anthony Harrington

At the launch of its special report on climate change, released on 10 June 2013, the International Energy Agency (IEA) took as its starting point the fact that the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii recently recorded the passing of what the IEA called "a grim milestone", with the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere topping 400 parts per million.

"This is uncharted territory in the history of humans," IEA head Maria van der Hoeven commented.

As I noted in Part One, the IEA now reckons that the balance of probabilities, as it were, is against us managing to limit global warming to 2%, with the more likely outcome being an increase of between 3.6 degrees and 5.3 degrees. However, with the global energy sector contributing two thirds of all greenhouse gas emissions, largely because about 80% of the world's generating capacity is based on fossil fuels, it is still technically possible that dramatic new moves in energy generation could limit the rise to 2%, the IEA says.

The importance of the energy sector as a locus for action to limit global warming is highlighted by the fact that global energy-related CO2 emissions increased by 1.4% through 2012, amounting to 31.6 gigatonnes, a historic high, according to the IEA. On our present path, even allowing for the improvements China is making (having become the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gasses), the IEA reckons that global energy-related greenhouse-gas emissions in 2020 will be nearly 4 Gt CO2-equivalent higher than a level consistent with attaining the 2% limiting target. The IEA is proposing four policy measures which it claims will enable the world to bring the 2% target back within reach, and it claims this can be achieved without harming the world's growth prospects.

The four policies are:

  • implement specific energy efficiency measures, with a payback of 49% of the targeted reduction in emissions by 2020
  • put strict limits on the construction and use of the least-efficient coal-fired power plants (payback of 21% of emissions)
  • minimise methane emissiosn from upstream oil and gas production (18% saving)
  • Accelerate the fading out of subsidies promoting fossil fuel consumption

The first point involves such things as implementing energy performance standards in buildings for lighting, new appliances and for new heating and cooling equipment, as well as introducing electric cars and the like in the transport system. The second point simply confirms the obvious notion that eliminating the most polluting coal-fired power stations around the world could have a major impact. However, since much of this sub-optimal generating capacity is in places that are struggling to meet the power needs of their industries, the chances of getting such stations switched off any time soon are probably not high. Particularly since the IEA cites India, which is really struggling to meet its own energy requirements.

Venting and flaring to atmosphere by the upstream oil and gas sector released around 1.1 Gt CO2 equivalent of methane in 2010. That could and should be addressed, but probably won't be. Finally, fossil fuel subsidies amounted to $523 billion in 2011 which gives some headroom for savings there. In the launch release van der Hoeven puts a persuasive economic argument for action now by the energy sector. By not acting the sector would save itself 1.5 trillion dollars in what it would otherwise have had to pay out in low carbon investments, but if the world decides in 2020 that it really is going to take climate change seriously, then getting back on track will cost the sector some $5 trillion. So the choice really is between spending $1.5 trillion over the next seven years or spending $5 trillion after that for the same result. This costing, of course, takes no account of what might happen or what the costs might be in lives and damage to property if our failure to act puts us on the path to wild weather. So far the political process has not proved particularly sensitive to economic arguments, preferring to kick the can down the road for as long as possible. Realistically one cannot expect the IEA's Special Report to make any major dent in this ingrained political habit, but at least they are trying...

Further reading on climate change:

Tags: China , climate change , CO2 , IEA , International Energy Agency , methane
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