IEA: the world is locking itself into an unsustainable energy future

If we don’t change direction soon, we’ll end up where we’re heading

The World Energy Outlook 2011 is the most depressing of the International Energy Agency (IEA) outlooks that I have read. Check out the executive summary [PDF], and the associated slideshow deck. IEA has changed their policy to charge a significant access fee. The electronic version (1 user license) is €120 {happily PDFs of the pre-2010 books remain free}. You can access several useful extracts from the full report at the WEO home page, e.g., Developments In Energy Subsidies.

How to summarize? I think these two paragraphs capture the outlook — our chances of holding GHG concentrations to levels of 2°C are slipping through our inactive fingers:

Steps in the right direction, but the door to 2°C is closing

We cannot afford to delay further action to tackle climate change if the long-term target of limiting the global average temperature increase to 2°C, as analysed in the 450 Scenario, is to be achieved at reasonable cost. In the New Policies Scenario, the world is on a trajectory that results in a level of emissions consistent with a long-term average temperature increase of more than 3.5°C. Without these new policies, we are on an even more dangerous track, for a temperature increase of 6°C or more.

Four-fifths of the total energy-related CO2 emissions permissible by 2035 in the 450 Scenario are already “locked-in” by our existing capital stock (power plants, buildings, factories, etc.). If stringent new action is not forthcoming by 2017, the energy-related infrastructure then in place will generate all the CO2 emissions allowed in the 450 Scenario up to 2035, leaving no room for additional power plants, factories and other infrastructure unless they are zero-carbon, which would be extremely costly. Delaying action is a false economy: for every $1 of investment avoided in the power sector before 2020 an additional $4.3 would need to be spent after 2020 to compensate for the increased emissions.

I remain skeptical of the wisdom and indeed the technical feasibility of CCS. But IEA says, in effect, “we gotta”:

(…) In the New Policies Scenario, CCS plays a role only towards the end of the projection period. Nonetheless, CCS is a key abatement option in the 450 Scenario, accounting for almost one-fifth of the additional reductions in emissions that are required. If CCS is not widely deployed in the 2020s, an extraordinary burden would rest on other low-carbon technologies to deliver lower emissions in line with global climate objectives.

The IEA “New Policies Scenario” proposes that nuclear output increases by more than 70% by 2035 and increasing subsidies for non-hydro renewables, projected to increase “from 3% in 2009 to 15% in 2035, underpinned by annual subsidies to renewables that rise almost five-times to $180 billion.”

I do not know how realistic are the IEA projections of renewables costs — especially the costs of maintaining grid stability given an increasingly large proportion of unreliable, non-dispatchable power. One of the slides summarizes the New Policies for renewables as only 30% additional output for 60% of the investment. That is a staggering waste, compared to expanded nuclear generation — but I suspect we will find that figure understates the true cost of that much unreliable generation.

More commentary on WEO 2011: