Science & Environment

International Energy Agency urges stop-gap climate action

Coal fired station in China
Image caption The IEA wants to see cleaner technologies introduced at coal-fired plants

A sticking plaster solution for climate change has been proposed by the world's top energy think tank, the International Energy Agency (IEA).

It says climate change could pass a critical level if the world waits until 2020 for the planned comprehensive UN deal to cut emissions.

In the meantime, it recommends some short-term measures.

These include action on energy efficiency, coal-fired power stations, and fossil fuel subsidies.

The IEA authors believe governments will find it easier to take smaller focused measures than to shift their entire economies to clean energy systems.

The agency repeats its warning that two-thirds of existing fossil fuel reserves cannot be burned if emissions are to be held within the projected danger threshold of a 2C rise.

It wants immediate major investment in carbon capture and storage technology to enable more fossil fuels to be used. But this technology is years behind schedule and still untried in power stations at industrial scale.

Standard route

The report, Re-drawing the Energy Climate Map, appeals to politicians' self-interest by dangling a carrot of competitive advantage to nations that can save more energy and cut emissions cheaply.

Its latest tactic offers by 2020 to reduce emissions by 3.1 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent (3.1 Gt CO2-eq) at what it says will be no net economic cost.

Energy efficiency is the bedrock of the approach (49%) with recommended energy performance standards in all countries for lights, heating, and appliances.

Setting standards is a proven way of reducing energy use and saving consumers costs in the long term, but new standards are typically resisted strongly by manufacturers wishing to continue profits from current models. More than half the projected savings can come from the buildings sector, the report says.

Limiting the use of old polluting coal-fired power stations is another idea, which the IEA says will also combat air pollution. New plants cost money, though, especially if they are the most efficient type that the IEA recommends.

Halving methane releases from upstream oil and gas operations by 2020 is feasible at affordable cost, the report says. Methane releases produced 1.1 gt CO2 equivalent in 2010.

'Black' snow

The last of the four stop-gap solutions proposed is already in line with a resolution adopted by the G20 countries – the partial phase out of fossil fuel subsidies.

This should be accelerated, the IEA says. Dirty fossil fuels receive $523bn a year in subsidies - six times more than clean renewables.

This policy will prove controversial as removal of subsidies tends to provoke a sharp political response, but the report points out that the policy is attractive to national treasuries looking to cut budgets.

The report notes that the growth in China's emissions has been among the lowest for a decade as renewables have grown and carbon intensity targets begin to bite. Emissions in the US are 200 million tonnes down, thanks to a switch to gas from coal, bringing emissions down to the levels of the mid-1990s. But emissions in Japan are up 70 million tonnes following the Fukushima nuclear accident.

Overall, global emissions rose 1.4% despite the economic slowdown. On current trends, the world is moving further away from its target of limiting global temperature rise to 2C, the report says.

The document only looks at the energy sector, the biggest contributor to global emissions. Other recent positive measures towards tackling climate change have been the agreement between the US and China to phase out HFC gases and a growing international pact to limit pollutants like black carbon, which settles on snow and makes it absorb more heat.

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