The International Energy Agency needs to prove its credibility on climate
Written by Kendrick Lebron on July 13, 2020
This week’s Clean Energy Transitions Summit, organised by the International Energy Agency, promises to bring together ministers, energy CEOs and major investors with the stated aim of building on the growing momentum for a sustainable pandemic recovery by developing policies that can create jobs, send greenhouse gas emissions into structural decline and increase energy sector resilience.
It is critical timing: climate ambition and a just recovery for all must be front and centre as decision-makers begin the shift of trillions of dollars in what must be an effort to recover better.
The IEA’s rhetoric has been good. IEA head Fatih Birol was one of the first to call for a clean energy recovery, and the headlines from its recent sustainable recovery report highlighted the merits of green stimulus in COVID-19 recovery strategies and made clear governments should adopt such measures. It suggests global spending of $3tn over 3 years, to boost clean energy growth and ensure that emissions continue on a downward trajectory.
But when it comes to the IEA’s bread and butter – data and analysis – the agency has a lot to prove if it is seeking to earn climate credibility. Despite growing calls for reform, it continues to push forward a dangerous 3C business-as-usual “central scenario” in its flagship World Energy Outlook (WEO).
A central scenario to keep global warming to a far safer 1.5C (without over-reliance on negative emissions technologies) would not only prove the IEA’s seriousness on climate action but also give political and financial decision-makers much needed tools to plan for the success of the Paris Agreement.
The IEA performs numerous roles in the global energy landscape, including publishing vital energy emissions data, and makes increasingly positive noises about sustainability. Yet it is also unable to shake off the perception that its roots are still firmly in the old energy system rooted in fossil fuels, retaining its core aim of ensuring members’ oil security – the reason it was established in 1974.
Scenarios set out in its annual WEO consistently underestimate growth in renewables – particularly solar – as well as associated technologies including electric vehicles. Meanwhile it has a history of projecting ever-increasing demand for fossil fuels. As a result, the IEA has been famously accused of creating its own reality.
This matters because the WEO’s influential scenarios are utilised to inform the decisions of policymakers and investors and are currently bolstering the case for continued investment in fossil fuels.
The IEA seems incapable of anticipating radical changes in energy policy, regulation and demand. This will be a problem given the unprecedented circumstances in which governments now find themselves.
Perhaps most alarming, the agency has failed to deliver a central, 1.5C-aligned scenario despite repeated requests from respected climate scientists and leading investors with trillions of assets under management. Currently, it is essentially telling policymakers and investors that there isn’t a viable path to delivering what governments have committed to under the Paris Agreement.
In its recent sustainable recovery report, the bulk of new jobs are identified in green economic stimulus, from retrofitting buildings to energy efficiency, renewables and grid integration. But the report inexplicably recommends governments support carbon capture and storage as well as nuclear small modular reactors, despite these not even performing well by its own analysis.
It fails to adequately address the critical just transition needed in the energy sector or recognise the scale of support required for communities to transform their economies away from fossil fuels and towards investments in a cleaner future. Also absent is any detailed regional or country-specific data that could provide guidance for individual governments.
The summit therefore sits on shaky foundations, and the urgency of the hour demands more than a talkfest in which participants exchange laudable but vague sentiments. If we are not to see emissions rebound after the pandemic, we deserve a clear sense of the commitments the summit plans to deliver.
This week is shaping up to be a defining moment for the IEA, with its reputation and ultimately its relevance at stake.
It can either seize the urgency it rightly points to, fix the WEO, and tackle the need to begin a managed phase-out of all fossil fuel production and financing. Or it can continue to play it safe, relying on a mix of energy efficiency, natural gas, added renewables and optimistic projections on innovations in CCS and nuclear.
If it can’t shake off its reluctance to confront the big and rapid changes needed in the energy system, the IEA risks missing the best chance we have to make real change and the low carbon transition real.
Jennifer Morgan is executive director of Greenpeace International, and Elizabeth Bast is executive director of Oil Change International.