Climate Change: 2020 Will Be Too Late

The International Energy Agency (IEA) published a special report on the future of climate and international negotiations with a call to attention directed at governments: the year 2020 will be too late to make decisions (1). According to the agency, some measures should be adopted before this date if the "objective of maintaining the 2º C limit" is to be met. Also, the energy sector should reduce its emissions as from now at a rate of 5% per annum.

To avoid a dangerous climate change implies maintaining a level of concentration of greenhouse gasses below 450 ppm, which would ensure the increase in the average temperature of the planet would not be above 2º C. This is the goal established by the Climate Change Convention in 2009.

The last round of negotiations on the Climate Change Convention (Doha, December 2012) established a new road map — Doha Climate Gateway — setting the year 2015 as the limit to reach a series of agreements, to become operative in 2020. But the present alert is that this date is too late to ensure the maintenance of climate stability in view of the emissions that will have been accumulated by that date.

The energy sector is responsible for 80% of global emissions and it has been predicted that by the year 2020 these will reach a level of 4 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent (GtCO2e) above the trajectory consistent with the objective of 2º C. To reach this goal, emissions should "peak" in 2020 and then begin to decline vigorously. With the emissions constantly growing and an agreement that only becomes operative at that date it will be impossible to reach this goal.

The Measures

Because of this the agency proposes four urgent measures to be applied in order to "buy precious time as the negotiations continue". The first of these is the adoption of specific measures of energy efficiency, which could account for half of the needed reductions. The second proposal is to limit the construction and use of coal-based electricity generating plants (21% of the reductions). The third is to minimize the escape of methane resulting from gas and petroleum exploitation (18% of reductions). Finally, to accelerate the dismantling of subsidies for the consumption of fossil fuels, which, in 2011, amounted to $523 billion.

The document notes that to achieve 50% of the possibility of not surpassing the 2º C goal, total possible emissions during the first half of this century would be 1440 GtCO2e. Of this "carbon budget", 420 Gt have already been emitted between 2000 and 2011, and another 136 Gt will be emitted by non-energy sectors (agriculture, deforestation, etc.) by 2050. This leaves a maximum of 884 Gt from the energy sector by this date, and this requires a reduction of emissions from this sector at a rate of 5% per annum.

Natural Gas Questioned

Natural gas has in recent years appeared as a less-carbon-contaminating substitute, which has resulted in an important development of exploration and exploitation, particularly in the so-called "non-conventional" gas (shale and "tight" gas).

Natural gas has been heralded as presenting smaller carbon emissions per unit of energy consumed. Nevertheless this itself has resulted in higher absolute emissions (a sort of climatic "Jevons paradox"). In 2012, global emissions of CO2 from the energy sector increased by 400 Mt over 2011 (1,4%). This growth responds to the increase in the use of natural gas (2,7%), petroleum (1,1%) and coal (0,6 %). If the contribution of each of these fossil fuels in the global increase of energy emissions is analyzed, we find that 44% of this corresponds to natural gas, 44% to coal and 12% to petroleum.

Thermoelectric units of the combined gas cycle produce half of the emissions per KWh compared to coal plants. But part of the gains involved are lost through furtive emissions of methane derived from the production and distribution of natural gas. Only a third of the needed reductions can be achieved by the change from coal to natural gas in electricity generation, a fact which indicates that a fuel change is not the best option.

The Sense of Urgency

These measures proposed by the IEA are those that they consider to be economically viable at the present time. They pose no threat to economic growth nor will they result in a planetary recession. They are not radical measures, but palliatives. But beyond whether these proposals are the most appropriate or not, what should be noted is their central message: we cannot wait for a solution from the negotiations of the Climate Change Convention. These will be too late.

The governments of every country in the world, but above all those that present the most contaminating energy models, should take these warnings seriously and not postpone decisions until 2020. Measures taken at that time would be much more costly, and climate change might well be irreversible.

Gerardo Honty is an analyst on energy and climate change with CLAES (Centro Latino Americano a Ecología Social).

(Translation for Alai by Jordan Bishop)

1) Redrawing the energy-climate map. World Energy Outlook Special Report. OECD/IEA, 2013

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