Governments are falling badly behind on low-carbon energy, putting carbon reduction targets out of reach and pushing the world to the brink of catastrophic climate change, the world’s leading independent energy authority will warn on Wednesday.
The stark judgment is being given at a key meeting of energy ministers from the world’s biggest economies and emitters taking place in London on Wednesday – a meeting already overshadowed by David Cameron’s last-minute withdrawal from a keynote speech planned for Thursday.
“The world’s energy system is being pushed to breaking point,” Maria van der Hoeven, executive director of the International Energy Agency, writes in today’s Guardian. “Our addiction to fossil fuels grows stronger each year. Many clean energy technologies are available but they are not being deployed quickly enough to avert potentially disastrous consequences.”
On current form, she warns, the world is on track for warming of 6C by the end of the century – a level that would create catastrophe, wiping out agriculture in many areas and rendering swathes of the globe uninhabitable, as well as raising sea levels and causing mass migration, according to scientists.
Van der Hoeven, whose deputy will present the IEA’s findings to the Third Clean Energy Ministerial, put the blame squarely on policymakers, and challenged ministers to step up.
She said: “The current state of affairs is unacceptable precisely because we have a responsibility and a golden opportunity to act. Energy-related CO2 emissions are at historic highs, and under current policies, we estimate that energy use and CO2 emissions would increase by a third by 2020, and almost double by 2050. This would be likely to send global temperatures at least 6C higher within this century.”
The prime minister has caused controversy because a planned “keynote” speech for Thursday at the meeting – which would have been his first on green issues since being elected – has been scaled back to only a few introductory remarks at a round table meeting.
“The speech was a planned and much-anticipated major intervention, so his decision not to deliver it is a massive failure of leadership,” said David Nussbaum, chief executive of WWF-UK, the group that took Cameron on his famous “husky-hugging” trip to the Arctic in 2006. “Now, with his government’s approach to climate and energy policy in disarray, people are asking where the prime minister stands on these key issues.”
Energy experts speculated he was unwilling to make a long public appearance in front of the press during a what has been a torrid few weeks.
In its report, Tracking Clean Energy Progress, the IEA, widely regarded as the gold standard for energy research, ranked progress on 11 key low-carbon indicators, including renewables, nuclear energy and carbon capture and storage. It found the world was on track to meet just one of these targets.
Some technologies that governments have been relying on to reduce emissions – such as carbon capture and storage – were not even off the ground yet, despite years of development.
To meet the carbon cuts that scientists calculate are needed by 2020, the IEA says, the world needs to generate 28% of its electricity from renewable sources and 47% by 2035. Yet renewables now make up just 16% of global electricity supply.
On carbon capture and storage, the picture is even worse: the world needs nearly 40 power stations to be fitted with the technology within eight years, and so far none at all have been built.
Plans for new nuclear plants have been affected by last year’s nuclear accident at Fukushima, Japan, and expectations for atomic energy capacity in 2025 have been scaled back by 15%.
That shortfall will have to be made up elsewhere, such as by further increases in renewables, if the world is to avoid temperature increases of more than 2C above pre-industrial levels – the limit of safety, scientists say, beyond which climate change becomes catastrophic.
There were some bright spots on the low-carbon energy scene, the IEA said – “mature” renewable technologies, such as onshore wind, hydro-electricity and solar panels, were broadly on track.
However, the capacity for some of these technologies is limited – most of the best locations for hydroelectricity in many countries are already in use, for example. The world urgently needed to bring forward other technologies, such as offshore wind, if the targets were to be met, one of the report’s authors said.
Energy efficiency is the most cost-effective way to cut emissions and increase energy security, but businesses and governments were failing to invest in it, the report found. Progress was also slow on electric vehicles and more efficient cars, while of the coal-fired power stations being built, about half continued to use old inefficient technology instead of more modern designs.
The ministers meeting on Wednesday are expected to discuss international co-operation on low-carbon energy, and ways of encouraging businesses to invest in the infrastructure needed.
Van der Hoeven said: “The ministers meeting this week in London have an incredible opportunity before them. It is my hope that they heed our warning of slow progress, and act to seize the security, economic and environmental benefits that the clean energy transition can bring.”
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