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Tuesday, November 13, 2012

IEA: some good renewable news, but a very dark climate outlook

The International Energy Agency has published its World Energy Outlook 2012. The report contains some encouraging – but mostly profoundly troubling – projections.

IEA says that renewable energy could rival coal as the biggest global source of electricity production by 2035.  Renewable sources are forecast to become the second biggest power generator in 2015 and rise to almost a third of all generation in 2035, a level comparable to that of coal. The drivers for this increase are falling costs of renewable technologies, rising prices of fossil fuels, and increased renewable subsidies.

The latter point is crucial.  IEA projects global renewable energy subsidies to rise to $240 billion in 2035.  Is that projection realistic?  In 2011, IEA says they totaled $88 billion.  Government support for renewable energy around the world has been cut or thrown into doubt, and subsidies to fossil fuels increased 30% in 2011 alone to $523 billion - almost 6 times the subsidy amount for renewable energy.  And fossil fuel subsidies will be difficult to reduce.  

So the comparatively rosy picture painted for renewables is in doubt.

IEA projects that, thanks mainly to hydraulic fracturing, the United States will become the world's biggest oil producer by 2017, a net exporter of natural gas by 2020, and will be almost energy self-sufficient by 2035. But as Ed Matthew, director of the think tank Transform UK, has warned: "Energy independence will not increase national security in the US if it leads to runaway climate change."

And therein lies the profoundly troubling news. 

Fossil fuels still dominate the global energy mix.  While shale gas can be a bridge fuel and is essential even in optimistic projections on renewable energy use, IEA says that the projected growth in renewables won’t be enough to meet the United Nations goal of limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). We are likely heading for triple that warming. 

IEA says that almost 80 percent of the emissions allowable by 2035 under a 2-degree scenario are already locked in because of existing energy use patterns, and all the allowable emissions will be locked in by 2017 if no action is taken to drastically reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Even a massive investment in largely-ignored energy efficiency would push back the lock in date by only about 5 years, IEA says.
The current course is unsustainable, deeply troubling, and may be deadly.

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