In the last few years the International Energy Agency has undergone a remarkable transformation into an institution that is putting environmental concerns front and centre. The penny has finally dropped on resource depletion after years of denial, and there is a real effort to be constructive on the subject of climate change.
In a preview of the IEA’s latest World Energy Outlook, they look at whether climate change can still be kept below 2 degrees of warming. They believe it can, but that the need for action is urgent. Since most countries are still reluctant to spend money on cutting emissions, or sacrifice growth in any way, they are proposing a ‘4 for 2’ strategy of four key policies. These aren’t solutions to climate change, but four things that wouldn’t cost us anything and would ‘keep the door open’ to the 2 degree target. They all use existing technology and have been adopted in various parts of the world already.
- Adopt energy efficiency measures – this is the area that people are going to get properly mad about when they look back at this from the future, because there’s nothing to lose from eliminating emissions through wasted energy. Specifically, the IEA is after tighter vehicle and appliance standards, and new building efficiency standards. 60% of the potential savings here are in the buildings sector, which is why I write about architecture and buildings so often.
- Limit the construction and use of the least efficient coal power stations – banning coal power is politically difficult, but we could stop building and using poor quality coal power stations. That would improve air quality as well as emissions, and the change could be managed through air pollution controls. India, the United States and China have the most to do on this one.
- Minimise methane emissions from upstream oil and gas production – An easily overlooked aspect of our fossil fuel problem is the venting and flaring of methane. There are viable alternatives and some countries already use them, so there’s no reason why others couldn’t cut greenhouse gas emissions by reducing this wasteful practice. Incidentally, some studies of flaring at fracking sites have found that fracked gas can more damaging to the climate than coal – something worth noting when fracking is touted as a cleaner alternative fuel.
- Accelerate the phase-out of subsidies to fossil fuel consumption – in 2011 the world spent $532 billion on fossil fuel subsidies. That’s six times more than the subsidies directed at renewable energy, and another thing that future generations will hop up and down about if we gift them a broken climate. The G20 has agreed to stop subsidising fossil fuels, but it needs to happen faster, and plenty of the culprits aren’t G20 members.
The IEA suggest that all four of these measures, since they mainly deal with waste and efficiency, could be delivered at zero net cost.