IEA: Carbon Mitigation Efforts Have Stalled Despite Rapid Renewables Expansion

The carbon intensity of the global energy supply has barely budged in more than two decades despite otherwise successful efforts in deploying renewable energy, the International Energy Agency (IEA) warns in an annual report submitted to the Clean Energy Ministerial (CEM) on Wednesday.

The IEA’s report, “Tracking Clean Energy Progress 2013,” concludes that the "world is not on track" to realize targets through 2020 to limit average global temperature increases to 2C. That target was set by the 28-member autonomous agency’s Energy Technology Perspectives 2012 (ETP) 2°C Scenario (2DS) last year. It essentially describes an energy system consistent with an emissions trajectory (based on recent climate science research) that seeks to slash energy-related carbon emissions by more than half in 2050, compared with 2009.

The report to the CEM—an organization that is this week convening in New Delhi and whose members include 22 countries representing more than 75% of global energy consumption and 80% of global carbon emissions—issues a stark message: "Progress has not been fast enough."

The IEA illustrates the delay using its newly introduced Energy Sector Carbon Intensity Index (ESCII), which tracks how many tonnes of carbon dioxide are emitted for each unit of energy supplied. According to the agency, while the oil shocks of the 1970s made the world’s energy supply 6% "cleaner" from 1971 to 1990, the ESCII has remained static since then, changing less than 1%, despite climate policy commitments like the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. In 1990, the underlying carbon intensity of supply was 2.39 tonnes of CO2 per tonne of oil equivalent (tCO2/toe), but by 2010, it had barely budged to 2.37 tCO2/toe.

The IEA points to a number of reasons for the stall. It notes that from 2011 to 2012, solar photovoltaic and wind technologies grew by 42% and 19% respectively—despite economic and policy "turbulence" in the sector. At the same time, costs of most clean energy technologies fell more rapidly than anticipated. However, it warns that "large market failures are preventing clean energy solutions from being taken up; considerable energy-efficiency potential remains untapped; policies need to better address the energy system as a whole; and energy-related research, development and demonstration need to accelerate."

At the same time, coal technologies continue to dominate growth in power generation, the IEA says. Coal-fired generation rose by an estimated 6% from 2010 to 2012 and "continues to grow faster than non-fossil energy sources on an absolute basis." Emerging economies—China and India, prominently—are leading the drive for coal power, but so is Europe. While the U.S. saw continued coal-to-gas switching through 2012, low relative prices for coal led to increased generation from coal at the expense of gas in Europe, it says.

The carbon-free nuclear power expansion also slowed in the aftermath of Fukushima. Though construction began on seven nuclear power plants worldwide in 2012, the 2DS goals would require "far more significant construction rates," the report says.

Finally, lax government policies for carbon capture and storage technologies have hampered growth of that sector, the IEA notes. Construction began on two new integrated projects in 2012, but eight high-profile projects were cancelled. "There are signs of commercial interest in CCS technologies—public and private funds spent on CCS projects increased by USD 2.6 billion in 2012—but CCS will not be deployed in the power and industrial sectors until policies are in place that motivate industry to accelerate demonstration efforts," the agency warns.

Sources: POWERnews, IEA

—Sonal Patel, Senior Writer (@POWERmagazine, @sonalcpatel)

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