From his perch as chief economist for the International Energy Agency (IEA), Fatih Birol is virtually shouting his global warming predictions from the Paris rooftops.
Unless the United States, Europe, China, India and the other emerging economies get on a crash course to slash greenhouse gases, Birol contends, world leaders can simply forget about one of their oft-talked-about goals: stabilizing the average global temperature rise at 2 degrees Celsius.
"As we stand now," Birol said on Friday, "we're only a few meters away from saying goodbye to the 2-degree target."
In speeches in London and Abu Dhabi last week, and in an interview with ClimateWire, Birol said he's trying to reach the energy markets. Oil prices are heavy on the minds of the world's largest oil consumers. The U.S. economy is picking up, and China is lapping up as much oil as it can, as the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries considers, once again, the prospect of $100 crude and faces pressure to boost production. Crude prices in Africa and Asia topped $100 a barrel Friday.
As economies churn, the push to limit emissions is faltering.
"The later we move, the more difficult it will be, especially in the United States," Birol said. "There is a lot of infrastructure being built, lots of power plants. The later we move, the more expensive it will be."
Birol is the latest high-level figure in international energy and climate circles to warn that pledges to cut emissions made under the Copenhagen Accord don't go nearly deep enough to stem rising temperatures. As an economist, Birol is looking at the unflagging demand for fossil fuels that produce the carbon dioxide accumulating in the atmosphere and tepid investment levels in zero-emissions energy projects.
National policies don't keep up with rhetoric
"When I look at the next 10 years," he said, "even if I take into consideration the pledges made after the Copenhagen meeting, the best case is that this could put us on a trajectory in line with 3.5 degrees Celsius."
To hit that 2-degree target and remain there, he said "decarbonization" needs to increase by 400 percent, "and mainly in the countries where climate change is not high on the agenda."
"Almost all the energy infrastructure that we'll be using in 2020 is either in place now, or in the final investment stage," he said.
National policies have not kept pace, but it's also about energy economics, pure and simple. Utilities, which usually either are closely regulated or subsidize electricity, are geared toward buying the cheapest sources of electricity.
Birol pointed to natural gas as an example. The U.S. boom in unconventional natural gas development has dampened investment in renewable energy, he said, because gas has remained a cheap source of electricity. With big oil and gas producers hoping to duplicate that boom in Europe, China and other parts of Asia, gas could remain cheap enough, and for a long enough time, to put the kibosh on any surge in wind and solar power projects.
Yet, from Birol's vantage point, there's no time left to delay the rollout of zero-emissions technology to replace coal-burning plants. Wind and solar need the power contracts to build out systems, drive down costs and compete effectively with coal and gas as nations replace aging power plants.
"The push for renewable energies is not as strong as one needs to see for 2-degree target," he said. "If natural gas is cheap and available, this would be a problem for the competitiveness of renewable energy."
'Decarbonization' weakened by lack of resolve
So much of the problem is in the scale of decarbonization since U.N. member countries signed on to the Copenhagen Accord after December 2009 talks. The electric car industry is gearing up to make major inroads, as all the major car companies jump on the bandwagon. Still, he said, if you put together all the electric vehicle sales estimates in all of the countries establishing electric vehicle markets, it accounts for about 8 percent of car sales through 2020 and 2 percent of the global fleet.
"There is a strong push for this," he said. In general, though, energy development remains haphazard and unfocused despite pledges aimed at stabilizing temperatures. "When you look at all the targets for 2020, in most cases, those targets are not backed by concrete policies."
With regard to scale, look at China, he said. Birol pointed to Europe's debate about whether to increase its emissions reductions from 20 percent to 30 percent under the E.U. program. The difference comes out to about two weeks' worth of emissions in China. "That means the effort coming from a few countries will not be able to change the entire picture," he said.
Founded during the 1973-1974 oil crises, the 28-nation IEA was created originally to coordinate responses to oil shortages. But Birol's IEA is broader in scope and an influential adviser to energy-consuming nations. In recent years, IEA reports have also employed strong language to warn that oil and other fossil fuels pose a danger, and it considers clean energy development part of its mission.
Incremental temperature increases could affect food production and result in fiercer storms, according to U.N.-member scientists and independent organizations. The main source of the carbon buildup in the atmosphere is the excessive refining and burning of fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas.
BP sees emissions overshooting IEA's scenario
Late last week, BP PLC also reinforced the notion that oil isn't going anywhere.
"World energy growth over the next 20 years is expected to be dominated by emerging economies such as China, India, Russia and Brazil, while improvements in energy efficiency measures are set to accelerate," BP said in a Jan. 19 analysis of energy supply and demand through 2030.
Primary energy use is set to grow 40 percent through 2030. Energy sources will continue to diversify, meaning more nuclear power, dams and renewable power. The market shares of oil, gas and coal will begin to tail off by 2030. But in Asia's developing countries, in particular, petroleum consumption is expected to increase by 13 million barrels a day.
"The largest increments of new supply will come from OPEC -- conventional crude in Saudi Arabia and Iraq," said BP, adding that OPEC's share of oil production is set to increase to 46 percent, which hasn't been the case since 1977.
BP called for "smart, market-oriented policies to deliver the energy we need in a manageable way, without inhibiting economic development."
In an alternative scenario, which assumes "a significant increase in the level of political commitment" to reducing emissions, BP has emissions peaking just after 2020.
"The emissions path is still expected to be well above the IEA's 450 scenario," BP said, "indicating how much effort will be required after 2030 to put the world on a 'safe' path."
IEA had projected that the economic slowdown could put the global energy system on a trajectory to stabilize greenhouse gases at 450 parts per million of carbon dioxide-equivalent in the atmosphere, which would come out to a 2-degree-Celsius temperature increase.
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