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IEA says further focus on energy efficiency could set the world on course to achieve a peak in carbon emissions by 2020.

IEA says further focus on energy efficiency could set the world on course to achieve a peak in carbon emissions by 2020.

Karl Frankowski/Flickr

Climate report 'introduces sobriety' to Paris talks

Recent pledges by individual nations to cut greenhouse gases would buy the world only a little time—roughly 8 months—before it continues on its current course of global warming, the International Energy Agency (IEA) said today in a new report.

Even with the new pledges—made by about a dozen countries in the run-up to December’s U.N. climate change meeting in Paris—the world is on track to have used up its so-called carbon budget by about 2040, according to the report, titled Energy and Climate Change. By IEA's reckoning, that means we will have burned enough fossil fuel by then to have a 50-50 chance of raising the global temperature by 2°C. If no stronger action is taken by 2030, IEA says global temperature will increase 2.6°C by the year 2100.

The IEA report will “introduce some sobriety” to the Paris talks, says David Victor, an international relations expert at the University of California (UC), San Diego, who wrote in Nature last October that maintaining a long-held 2 °C goal is politically and scientifically “wrong-headed.”

But along with IEA's grim assessment, the Paris-based agency offers some hope: Further focus on energy efficiency could set the world on course to achieve a peak in carbon emissions by 2020. The report cites three pieces of good news for 2014. For the first time in at least 40 years, energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions stayed flat even without an economic crisis. Energy consumption per unit of gross domestic product dropped by 2.3%, more than double the average rate over the last decade. And finally, renewable energy accounted for half of all new energy generation in 2014.

"The IEA highlights that, a) the sustainable energy path is possible, and b) that we are moving too slowly," says Daniel Kammen, director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at UC Berkeley.

Kammen’s laboratory has found that even in the case of the world’s largest emitter, China, reaching maximum carbon emissions by 2030 is "entirely possible on energy grounds and hugely beneficial on health and environmental grounds."

IEA officials said in a prepared statement that—because world greenhouse gas emissions from energy production and use are double that of all other sources combined—climate change action must come first from the energy sector. “Any climate agreement reached at [the upcoming U.N. climate talks in Paris] must have the energy sector at its core or risk being judged a failure,” says IEA Chief Economist Fatih Birol.

The report urges further that nations reduce the use of inefficient coal power plants (so-called subcritical power plants) and ban their construction; increase global investment in renewable energy from $270 billion in 2014 to $400 billion by 2030; gradually phase out government policies that subsidize fossil fuel for consumers; and rein in the leakage of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, from oil and gas production sites.

The IEA report is just one of a number of assessments expected in the run-up to the Paris meeting, but its data on energy consumption trends are considered important for negotiations.

"Success in Paris should not be judged by 2°C but, more simply, by whether the talks turn the corner," Victor says. Noting that it has been 18 years since diplomats came away from their annual climate talks with an "actual agreement," he says that just signing a framework in Paris would be an achievement. "Focusing on practical outcomes like that, rather than another round of fantasy goals such as 2°C, is a sign that diplomacy is getting more serious and more realistic," Victor says.

The IEA report has already indicated diplomats may be leaning in that direction. "Translating the 2°C goal into subordinate targets, including a clear, collective long-term emissions goal, would provide greater ease and certainty," the report says. It further urges negotiators to adopt a plan in which countries reassess their pledges for emissions cuts every 5 years because of rapid changes in energy technologies.

New technologies—along with structural changes—have made all the difference in improved energy efficiency rates, says the report, especially in China. There, the amount of energy needed to produce one unit of GDP dropped 8% last year. In addition, IEA says that there is no evidence that lower global oil prices have led to the return of “profligate consumption” or the neglect of energy efficiency.

But Princeton University atmospheric scientist Michael Oppenheimer says it’s important not to read too much into one year's energy trends. "There are some tantalizing hints of big and beneficial changes underway, but one year's data is too little to hang much hope on," he says. "A huge effort will be required to slow and eventually reverse the current emissions trend sufficiently to stop global warming."