Paris climate deal at risk unless countries step up plans, says watchdog

The Paris agreement on climate change risks failure unless countries come forward with more ambitious and detailed plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions, the world's energy watchdog has warned.

The agreement, reached almost a year ago, is only a “framework”, said the International Energy Agency on Wednesday, and requires sweeping policy changes among governments around the world to put its aims into force.

“Government policies will determine where we go from here,” said Fatih Birol, the executive director of the agency. Current national pledges on greenhouse gas emissions, though “an achievement”, are inadequate and most governments have yet to indicate what further reductions they could make.

Governments are meeting this week in Marrakech to flesh out some of the legal and technical details of the Paris accord. But their talks have been overshadowed by the election of Donald Trump as US president because he has vowed repeatedly to cancel the agreement, or at least the US’s participation in it. This risks returning the world to the stalemate that characterised the decade of climate talks from the 1997 Kyoto protocol to the 2008 accession of Barack Obama, during which the US barely took part in the negotiations or, in some cases, actively obstructed them.

Birol urged caution: “Governments come and go around the world. This is a perfectly normal thing, and energy policies change with changes in administration. We may well see a change in US policy and, given the size of the US economy, these changes may have global implications. If there are such changes, we will include them in our analysis. But for now, it would be premature to speculate on what these policies might be.”

Under the Paris agreement, which came into force this month, nations have pledged to hold global warming to no more than 2C above pre-industrial levels, with an “aspiration” not to exceed 1.5C. However, the accompanying national pledges made by each government on curbs to their emissions are not legally binding.

Although those national pledges are likely to be met, according to the IEA’s World Energy Outlook, widely regarded as the gold standard on energy research, this will only slow down the projected rise in carbon emissions from energy from an annual average of about 650m tonnes a year since 2000 to about 150m tonnes in 2040. While a significant change, that would still leave the world exceeding the 2C goal by about 0.7C by the end of the century.

Policies to bring the world on to a 2C trajectory must be implemented as a matter of urgency if the Paris pledge is to be fulfilled, the IEA said, as emissions must peak in the next few years to avoid adding too much to the stock of carbon in the atmosphere.

Once carbon dioxide is in the atmosphere, it tends to stay there for at least a century, unless absorbed by the planet’s “carbon sinks”, such as forests and oceans. However, our emissions have long outstripped the ability of the world’s carbon sinks to absorb them. It is the carbon in the atmosphere that determines what happens to climate change, and as yet there is no viable technology – and no realistic prospect of it – to suck carbon from the air.

These physical realities make early action on reducing emissions vital, because actions taken later will be less effective.

The IEA highlighted the growing role of renewable energy, predicting that nearly 60% of all new power generation capacity by 2040 would be from renewable sources. The pace of growth has outstripped previous forecasts, as costs have come down faster than expected and governments have shifted policies. China’s reliance on coal – it is the largest consumer and producer – peaked in 2013, according to the data, and its falling coal consumption and increasing renewable generation capacity will “transform the global outlook”.

Even as more of global generation comes from renewable sources, demand will rise by about 30% by 2040, according to the projections, with all of the increase coming from developing countries. But even as they develop, hundreds of millions of their populations will be left behind.

More than half a billion people are forecast to still be without electricity in 2040. While this is less than half of current levels, it represents a failure to meet global pledges to rescue the poorest from their lack of access to modern energy, which results in millions of deaths from indoor air pollution as they use other sources of fuel, and limits development and education.

Separately, in the UK, ministers were warned that without urgent action during the current parliament, the UK would fail to meet its emissions targets, and investor confidence in the energy sector would plunge. The UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC) urged the chancellor, Philip Hammond, to include commitments on reforming energy policy in his autumn statement next week.

In a review of the UK’s energy policy, published on Wednesday, leading academics called for a clearer focus on energy in the government’s forthcoming industrial strategy, as well as new strategies on heat and energy efficiency, progress on which has been stalled by the scrapping of the “green deal” on home improvements. They also called for “a new approach” to carbon capture and storage, in response to a recent report by Lord Oxburgh, which criticised the abandonment of taxpayer support for the fledgling technology.

Jim Watson, UKERC’s director, said: “There are problems with the government’s approach [to energy]. The cheaper options for renewable energy [in the form of onshore wind and solar, support for which has been slashed] have been taken off the agenda. And Hinkley Point [nuclear power station] is likely to be very expensive.”

He also pointed to energy efficiency as a problem area, as “retrofitting buildings has really slowed down because of the policy environment”.

The UK could still meet its carbon targets, he concluded, but it would require action now, because current policies were inadequate and the progress on emissions reductions made in the past few years had been the result of policy decisions taken well over a decade ago.

Fiona Harvey 

This article first appeared on the Guardian

edie is part of the Guardian Environment Network

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