In its annual progress report, the International Energy Agency (IEA) unsurprisingly called for more urgency and action from nations across the globe in the development and deployment of renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies.
The organization, which has been working to maintain energy security and ensure affordable, reliable, and clean energy for nearly 40 years, did not pull any punches in its assessment of the global energy situation.
Recent environmental, economic and energy security trends point to major challenges: energy related carbon dioxide emissions are at an historic high, the global economy remains in a fragile state, and energy demand continues to rise. The past two years (2010 and 2011) also saw the Deepwater Horizon oil spill off the Gulf of Mexico, the Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan, and the Arab Spring, which led to oil supply disruptions in North Africa. Taken together, these trends and events emphasize the need to rethink our global energy system. Whether the priority is to ensure energy security, rebuild national and regional economies, or address climate change and local pollution, the accelerated transition towards a lower-carbon energy system offers opportunities in all of these areas.
From a technology standpoint, the IEA believes rapid change is possible as long as significant policy action is taken. Progress has been made in certain renewable technologies -- onshore wind has seen 27% annual growth over the past decade, while photovoltaic solar has grown 42%. Despite this growth, though, many technologies are not on track to make their required contribution to reducing carbon dioxide emissions and providing a more secure energy system.
The IEA issued a laundry list of areas for technology improvements.
For example, 50% of new coal-power plants in 2010 use inefficient technologies. New policy needs to be implemented to so new plants use best technology and that coal demand slows. Carbon capture and storage technology, which is considered a saving grace for fossil fuel power plants has not been developed -- there are no large-scale integrated projects in place. In order to meet the IEA's plan to limit mitigate climate change, 38 CCS projects must be operating by 2020.
Meanwhile, Biofuel production must double, with advanced biofuel production quadrupling by 2020. Global fuel economy improvements must increase, and governments need to implement fuel economy standards to push consumers towards more efficient vehicles.
The most glaring area of stunted development is energy efficiency. There is huge potential in curbing energy demand and lowering emissions through enhancing the energy performance of buildings. And, yet, many countries do not have energy efficiency policies in place.
As always, the IEA has policy recommendations for changing the status-quo and moving clean energy and efficiency technologies to the mainstream market.
First, level the energy playing field. This means having energy prices reflect "true cost" so that the positive and negative impacts of energy production and consumption are fully taken into account. For years clean energy enthusiasts have been clamouring for these hidden costs to be accounted for. Changing the playing field also requires eliminating fossil fuel subsidies, which were US$409 billion in 2010, up 39% from 2009. In comparison, renewable energy subsidies were $66 billion in 2010.
Second, unlock the potential of energy efficiency. The IEA calls energy efficiency the "hidden fuel of the future." Conserving energy represents the most-cost effective action that can be taken and is integral to creating sustainable energy mix. The IEA has crafted 25 recommendations to help countries achieve the full potential of energy efficiency.
Finally, the Agency calls for accelerating energy innovation and public support for research, development and demonstration (RD&D). Annual RD&D investment continues to remain lower than what is necessary in order for clean energy technologies to reach performance and cost objectives.
As the IEA is aware, the clean energy story has not changed.: increased development relies on political action. Upon the release of the report, IEA Deputy Executive Director, Ambassador Richard H. Jones said,
We have a responsibility and a golden opportunity to act. Energy-related CO2 emissions are at historic highs; 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 likely send global temperatures at least 6 degrees Celsius higher. Such an outcome would confront future generations with significant economic, environmental and energy security hardships -- a legacy that I know none of us wishes to leave behind.
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