Energy in the Climate Future: Predictions from the International Energy Agency

Energy in the Climate Future: Predictions from the International Energy Agency

The annual World Energy Outlook was just released, and along with it, various forecasts for the future of energy sources and the climate crisis. Clean energy is growing, but not fast enough, it reports.

It’s true—clean energy forms like wind, solar, and electric vehicles are spreading around the world faster than expected. But this rapid growth is not enough to curb climate change crises, slash humanity’s greenhouse gas emissions, or keep up with energy demands.

According to the International Energy Agency, which published its annual World Energy Outlook on Tuesday, clean-energy trends are on the uptick in general, but that doesn’t necessarily solve our problems. The report, an 810-page document that forecasts global energy trends to 2040, shows an increase in the agency’s future projections for offshore wind farms, solar installations, and battery-powered cars.

The noted increase in more renewable energy forms is largely in response to more ambitious energy targets and lower costs for these energy forms around the world. Technologies keep getting cheaper, and countries like India are making bigger targets for clean-energy, according to the New York Times.

This is all good and well, but the report issues some stark warnings. Even with a swing toward global clean-energy efforts, the report says the current energy policies countries currently have could still cause global greenhouse gas emissions to continue for the next 20 years.

The reason? The world’s demand for energy is surging, which means that while clean energy forms are increasing, it cannot keep up with worldwide energy demands. Fossil fuels, especially natural gas, are still growing to satisfy the rest.

It appears that at the rate the world is going, not only will we miss climate goals for the next 20 years, but we will miss by a lot:

“Without new policies in place, the world will miss its climate goals by a very large margin,” said Fatih Birol, the agency’s executive director.

Coal: Dead or Alive?
You might have heard it before: “coal is dead.” This is partially true, and partially not. The world’s consumption of coal—the dirtiest of all fuels—is indeed starting to stall. Many are going out of business thanks to competition from larger plants and natural gas. The report also notes that global investment in new, coal-fired power plants has sharply decreased in recent years. As a result, countries like India are developing other, cheaper, forms of energy like solar panels and battery storage for electricity.

And the report clearly predicts that clean-energy forms will dominate the world’s energy forms and surpass coal soon. By 2030, wind, solar, and hydropower are expected to grow to 42 percent of global generation, and coal would drop to 34 percent. Natural gas—while cleaner than coal but still a major contributor to climate change emissions—still is expected to play a major global role and cut into coal’s market share.

But, coal is finding new life in other ways. Asia has seen a number of new coal plants pop up, and the majority are an average of 12 years old with a long lifespan ahead. The new coal plants, particularly in Asia, will make it difficult to really affect greenhouse gas emissions unless these plants are run less frequently, retired, or upgraded with ecofriendly technology, says the report. However, the technology that captures plant carbon dioxide pollution and buries it underground is expensive, and the likelihood of plants investing in it is unlikely.

Offshore Wind Blowing Up

Wind—on land and water—is becoming an increasingly cheaper form of energy. In the earlier years of wind energy, it was much cheaper to build wind turbines on land. But recently, wind technologies for offshore farms in Europe have shown huge potential in harvesting stronger and steadier winds over the ocean. This windy success means costs are falling and technology is increasingly affordable and attractive for many countries.

Wind now holds 2 percent of the European Union’s electricity cards, and the agency’s report predicts a ninefold increase in wind production by 2040. Companies in the United States, China, South Korea, and Japan are reportedly planning major new offshore wind farms.

As for electric cars, consumers are buying more and more around the world—but there’s a catch. Consumers bought 2 million electric cars last year after battery costs fell and places like China and California saw generous vehicle incentives. The agency expects electric car sales to continue to accelerate and for the global gasoline and diesel use for cars to peak in the mid 2020s.

However, more people are buying electric cars, but they’re also buying gasoline-hungry S.U.V.s. Larger S.U.V.s use more gasoline than conventional cars, and the sale of S.U.V.s have soared in the last two decades. In 2000, just 18 percent of passenger vehicles sold were S.U.V.s. Today, it’s 42 percent.

The rise in S.U.V. dependency could really hurt global oil and gas savings from the electric-car boom. Now, it’s a matter of whether carmakers can figure out how to manufacture, and convince people to buy, batter-powered versions of popular S.U.V. models.

Energy Efficiency Efforts Roll Back

You would think that with an increase in clean-energy and a heightened concern for global warming would mean an increase in global energy efficiency efforts. Well, not so fast.

The report said that 2018 had only a 1.2 percent improvement in the energy intensity of the global economy, a measure of efficiency. This is the lowest rate it’s been in years—mainly because countries are weakening their policies. This includes the United States, where the Trump Administration has worked on easing regulations on a number of fronts on coal, vehicle fuel, and light bulb regulations.

Mr. Birol reminds people that there is significant room for improvement in every country. In addition to switching to cleaner energy sources, countries can also curb their emissions by improving the energy efficiency of their factories, homes, and vehicles through policies like building codes and fuel economy standards.

Still, “Two out of three buildings worldwide today are being built without efficiency codes and standards,” Birol said. “And those buildings can last for five to six decades, so focusing on efficiency is very important.”

All Eyes on Africa

While urbanized and developed countries have an obligation to use available technology, the other side of the coin involves countries that are soon to industrialize—like Africa. This year’s report notes that Africa is expected to urbanize over the next few decades at a faster pace than China did in the 1990s and 2000s. If the country does so while prioritizing fossil fuels over clean-energy forms, like China did, this could really affect greenhouse gas emissions.

However, there might be hope for a greener Africa. The continent, reports Mr. Birol, is about 40 percent of the world’s potential for solar energy but still has less than 1 percent of the world’s solar panels.

“I think energy developments in Africa are going to surprise many of the pessimists,” Birol said.

As it turns out, this year’s World Energy Outlook from the International Energy Agency was a mixed bag of promising news and scary truths. The global climate crisis is incredibly complex and dependent on a number of factors, but one thing is for sure: energy is at the heart of it all.

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