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An aerial view of flooded homes near Deggendorf, Germany.

Floodwater from the Danube River surrounds a small settlement near Deggendorf, in eastern Bavaria, on June 5. With more frequent extreme weather likely on the world's current trajectory, a  new IEA report urges immediate action.

Photograph by Wolfgang Rattay, Reuters

Thomas K. Grose in London

For National Geographic

Published June 11, 2013

If the world waits until 2020 to take action on global climate change, it will undoubtedly be too late, the International Energy Agency (IEA) warns in a new report.

However, the Paris-based agency, which is tasked with maintaining global energy security, identified four proven policies, each relying on current technology, that could be implemented immediately. (See quiz: "What You Don't Know About World Energy.")

These efforts could keep the world on track while nations work toward a more comprehensive 2020 agreement to limit the rise in global temperature to no more than 2°C above preindustrial levels, IEA said. Without such steps, the agency said, the prognosis is dire. (See related story: "IEA Outlook: Time Running Out on Climate Change.")

"The path we are currently on is more likely to result in a temperature increase of between 3.6 degrees Celsius to 5.3 degrees Celsius," with most of that warming happening within this century, said IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven at a London press conference. Already, the report noted, global temperatures have increased 0.8°C beyond preindustrial levels.

The IEA said that, under its four-point plan, greenhouse-gas emissions in 2020 would be 8 percent, or 3.1 metric gigatons, lower than levels they are otherwise likely to hit. In May, it was reported that the carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration in the atmosphere at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii hit 400 parts per million, a high in human history, and the IEA's goal is to help ensure that the level does not exceed 450 ppm by 2020. (See related story: "Climate Milestone: Earth's CO2 Level Passes 400 ppm.") But even if that goal is met, it said, there is still only a 50 percent chance of keeping to the 2°C limit.

IEA's four recommendations are:

  • Strengthen or introduce energy-efficiency measures in buildings, industry, and transportation.
  • Cut back on the construction and use of inefficient coal-fired power plants.
  • Take action to halve the release of methane into the environment from the oil and gas industry.
  • Start the phaseout of fossil-fuel consumption subsidies.

Here's a closer look at why IEA issued its new warning and suggested plan of action.

Q: Why is it important not to exceed the 2°C limit?

A: Even at the 2°C level, the Earth is likely to experience "extreme changes in its climate system that it has not seen in more than 200,000 years," said Corinne Le Quere, director of the Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research at East Anglia University. There will, she said, be "more heat waves, extreme rainfall events and rising sea levels." Severe weather, like the storms that caused the Danube and Elbe rivers in Central Europe to overflow in recent weeks, is expected to become more frequent. (See related: "Pictures: Worst Floods in European History?") Climate change will also place stresses on food production. Temperature increases greater than 2°C will be much harder to adapt to, Le Quere said, because there will be complete shifts in vegetation and water patterns.

Q: What's the most important step we can take now?

A: Of IEA's four recommendations, ramping up energy-conservation measures would have the greatest impact. Fully half of the 8 percent reduction in emissions would come from making residential and commercial buildings, industrial motors, and vehicles more energy-efficient, the report said. Policies to encourage energy conservation already exist in the United States, Europe, Japan, and China, though they need to be strengthened or extended, IEA said. (See related: "Pictures: Seven Supergreen U.S. Government Buildings.")

The agency is urging other countries to introduce similar measures to promote greater use of efficient heating and cooling systems, automated climate control systems, better insulated buildings, low-energy motors, and energy-efficient lighting and appliances. (See related: "'The Greenest Home: A Window on 18 Super-Eco Dream Houses.") Lights and appliances alone account for 37 percent of electricity demand in the mostly wealthy countries that are part of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

Q:  So why aren't we more energy-efficient?

A: Conservation is perhaps the "least painful" way of cutting emissions, as well as one of the best, said Le Quere. Nevertheless, she added, "one of the issues, one reason it's not taken up more is the cost, because you pay more up front." (See related: "Pro-Environment Light Bulb Labeling Turns Off Conservatives, Study Finds")  Ultimately, those extra dollars are returned in the form of lower fuel bills, but "consumers don't see the gains right away," she said. IEA also urged tighter fuel-economy standards for vehicles—road transportation is the source for 16 percent of CO2 emissions from the energy sector. But the agency acknowledges that new rules won't have much immediate impact because of the long lead time needed to put newer, cleaner cars on the road.

Q: Why go after coal-fired plants?

A: About 20 percent of potential emissions abatement could come from cutting back on coal-fired plants, the IEA said. It could be part of a scenario that boosts the share of global power generation from renewable sources from 20 percent to 27 percent by 2020. IEA urges an outright ban on new construction of subcritical (inefficient) coal-fired plants (while allowing those already under construction to move forward). The report also supports idling aging coal plants that have recouped their investments, resulting in a worldwide 25 percent reduction of those facilities by 2020.

Q: Why focus on methane?

A: Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, with 25 times the global warming potential of CO2. (See related: "Methane: Good Gas, Bad Gas.") In 2010, uncontrolled methane released into the atmosphere totaled 1.1 metric gigatons of CO2 equivalent, or twice the total natural-gas production of Nigeria. The IEA reckons that 18 percent of the overall emissions reduction it's aiming for could come from cutting leakage in half. The agency considers this a rather easy policy to enact because the necessary technologies to capture methane emissions are readily available at low cost. Several countries—including the United States—are already adopting policies to require them. (See related:"A Move to Capture 'Fugitive' Natural Gas Emissions.") Paul Stevens, a senior energy fellow at London's Royal Institute for International Affairs, agreed. More often than not, he said, "methane emissions result from poor well completion." But for that problem to be fixed, he said, "you need to get regulators to do their jobs." And in many developing countries, that's not always easy to do. But a regulatory crackdown on methane emissions, he added, would also benefit the industry because it's profitable to capture and sell the gas instead of wasting it.

Q: Why are fossil-fuel subsidies a big deal?

A: The agency says 12 percent of the potential emissions reduction could come from scaling back subsidies. (See related: Interactive Map: Fossil Fuel Burden on State Coffers) In 2011, it said, fossil-fuel subsidies totaled $523 billion, or six times the amount of support given to renewable fuels: "Currently, 15 percent of global CO2 emissions receive an incentive of $110 per tonne [metric ton] in the form of fossil-fuel subsidies, while only 8 percent are subject to carbon price." Stevens also thinks this is a workable idea. "Pushing prices up is always a good way to convince people to use less." The IEA, however, admitted that "subsidy reform is likely to be a challenging and slow process in many countries because of political obstacles," which is why it doesn't envision a universal phase out any time soon. (See related: "Pictures: Eleven Nations With Large Fossil-Fuel Subsidies.") In January 2012, for instance, the government of Nigeria announced the complete removal of subsidies, which sparked weeks of violent protests. (See related: "Nigeria's Rocky Effort to Wean Itself From Subsidized Fuel.") "That was a classic example of how not to do it," Stevens said. But, he added, "it's not impossible" to remove them if there is political will and it's done slowly. He cited Iran as a country that successfully ended its subsidies. (See related: Quiz: What You Don't Know About Energy Subsidies.)

Q: Given the perilous state of some economies, won't these measures cost too much?

A: Not at all, the IEA said. Fatih Birol, the IEA chief economist and the report's lead author, said the recommendations are "proven measures that could stop the growth in global energy-related emissions by the end of this decade at no net economic cost." For instance, while the reduction in coal plants would result in  $1.8 trillion in lost revenue through 2035,  net revenues from renewables-based and nuclear power plants would rise by a similar amount. Moreover, IEA estimated that while delaying stronger action until 2020 might save industries $1.5 trillion in low-carbon investments, those industries would then have to spend $5 trillion through to 2035 to make up for the lost time.

In other words, when it comes to climate change, the cost of action pales beside the price of delay.

This story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.

21 comments
Zoltan Ban
Zoltan Ban

I started reading the article, and at first I thought that the IEA was ready to offer a viable plan, but instead their four points were just a list of mitigation measures, which we already knew about, so nothing new.  What is missing, is a mechanism meant to make the mitigation measures more attractive uniformly around the world, because let us face is, we relied for the past few decades on voluntary goodwill and unilateral self-sacrifice, and we already see the results.

This is an article, which should clear up the problem of why we are failing to tackle this problem:

http://zoltansustainableecon.blogspot.com/2013/06/john-nash-versus-environmental-movement.html

We need less idealism and more realistic ideas.

Osmand Charpentier
Osmand Charpentier

Is not true that we have to wait 50 years to solve our contribution to global warming because the energy that permits, has been discovered: OCEANOGENIC POWER in Panama. (http://www.academia.edu/1478086/OCEANOGENIC_POWER)

Hydraulics, clean, renewable, abundant, also prevents conflicts for the last drops of cheap oil; enables setting nuclear fuel reserve for future contingencies cosmic; allows intelligent transition towards a civilization more friendly to our planet, and even allows geoengineering, to control the earth's magnetic field.

But unleashes the envy and jealousy of those who, by being born in a cradle of gold, have never had to use their talents.

Third World Paranoia? Why no journalist, has written an article about this, and allow the debate that gives confidence to investors? As if they have managed to safeguard its reputation by publishing other alleged discoveries that later proved to be false? 

Mariana Santelices
Mariana Santelices

Guy holder, what do you mean with the recent studies confirming our climate is less sensitive to our CO2? I mean, it's clear that the "studies" that you mentioned are allowing us to think that way so we keep being fuel consumers, otherwise why would we be so alarming about climate change? just for no reason?

Guy Holder
Guy Holder

@Mariana Santelices 

It's crazy - there's been no significant warming for 17 years. If you want to know more visit;   wattsupwiththat.com (the most widely viewed climate site on the web and three time award winner of best science blog).

Guy Holder
Guy Holder

Wow - after nearly two decades with no significant warming and recent studies confirming our climate is less sensitive to our CO2 emissions than the models have suggested, it is astonishing to see this kind of deception and alarmism in print. Is this what passes for journalistic integrity, advancing two decades of lies and deception in the face of observations and data that confirm otherwise?

Andrei Bilderburger
Andrei Bilderburger like.author.displayName 1 Like

My proposal.  First things first, take away all the money from the liberal politicians who believe SOMETHING MUST BE DONE about climate change.  Take their bank accounts, cars, homes, jewelry, etc. Contribute it to the cause.  They fly coach and ride busses and trains on official business from now on.

Alec Sevins
Alec Sevins like.author.displayName 1 Like

Why isn't "ramp up global birth control" near the top of the recommendations list? AGW can essentially be seen as a human overpopulation problem. It's not just behaviors, it's the sheer numbers behind them. There is plenty of denial among the supposed non-deniers.

Andrew Booth
Andrew Booth

@Alec Sevins I quite agree. In fact, almost all the 'problems' regularly discussed - climate change, extinction of species, deforestation, over-fishing, hunger, depletion of water and fuel reserves, pollution, lack of housing and jobs etc. - are the direct results of unchecked human population increase. However, that single underlying cause of all those problems is just ignored!

A bad doctor ignores the disease and only treats the symptoms. A good doctor knows to treat the disease and then the symptoms will disappear and the patient recover. Yet all these politicians, 'experts' and scientists attend all-expenses paid conferences where they talk and talk and talk while the patient (Earth) suffers and people and species die. They choose to ignore the one single cause of all the world's problems - too many people!


Zen Galacticore
Zen Galacticore like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

@Alec Sevins You're right. It has been obvious for the last 50 years to any reasonably informed person that the human race is in collective denial about over-population. This denial, to me (I've read NG religiously since I was about 10 years-old), is unfathomable.

Alec Sevins
Alec Sevins

Add "stop electing Creationist Republicans" to that list of things we can do.

Nick Smith
Nick Smith like.author.displayName 1 Like

The burning of fossil fuels remains the most inexpensive way to create energy. The notion that switching from the most efficient to a less efficient way to create energy wouldn't be any more expensive and/or wouldn't deter growth sounds crazy to me.

Also, the article suggests we do all of these things to reduce emissions by 8%. Now you're telling me that we are on the fast-track to the destruction of the earth, but reducing emissions by a measly 8% would make everything ok? Further, the article states that these measures will only get us to 2020, when then there would have to be a “worldwide agreement.” If we did all of these things between now and 2020 and reduced by 8%, what more would the world have to do to be safe?

Bottom line: folks like air conditioning, flying, driving, eating meat, and doing other things which require the use of energy. More and more folks from “developing” nations wish to enjoy these things moving forward too. And again, the use of inexpensive energy is necessary. There will never be a worldwide agreement, because few from the developing world would be willing to give up their lifestyle to a large enough extent to meaningfully curb emissions, and those from the developing are working towards lifestyles which mimic those from the already developed world.

The answer? Figure out some way to adapt to a changing earth and a changing climate. It is completely unrealistic to think we’ll ever come up with an agreement, and anything short of a worldwide agreement (like doing all the things in this article to reduce emissions by 8%) is meaningless and will delay the “catastrophe” by a matter of months, but have economic and lifestyle implications for all.

Alec Sevins
Alec Sevins like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

@Nick Smith wrote "The notion that switching from the most efficient to a less efficient way to create energy wouldn't be any more expensive and/or wouldn't deter growth sounds crazy to me."

Has it occurred to you that perpetual GROWTH of the economy & population is the core problem to begin with? The automatic excuse that we "must have growth" is the wrong way to approach this.

We need a steady-state economy ASAP, regardless of whether most people are intelligent enough to see it. It's not just about AGW, it's about a single species constantly destroying nature to sustain its gluttonous ways.

Nick Smith
Nick Smith

The burning of fossil fuels remains the most inexpensive way to create energy. The notion that switching from the most efficient to a less efficient way to create energy wouldn't be any more expensive and/or wouldn't deter growth sounds crazy to me.

Also, the article suggests we do all of these things to reduce emissions by 8%. Now you're telling me that we are on the fast-track to the destruction of the earth, but reducing emissions by a measly 8% would make everything ok? Further, the article states that these measures will only get us to 2020, when then there would have to be a “worldwide agreement.” If we did all of these things between now and 2020 and reduced by 8%, what more would the world have to do to be safe?

Bottom line: folks like air conditioning, flying, driving, eating meat, and doing other things which require the use of energy. More and more folks from “developing” nations wish to enjoy these things moving forward too. And again, the use of inexpensive energy is necessary. There will never be a worldwide agreement, because few from the developing world would be willing to give up their lifestyle to a large enough extent to meaningfully curb emissions, and those from the developing are working towards lifestyles which mimic those from the already developed world.

The answer? Figure out some way to adapt to a changing earth and a changing climate. It is completely unrealistic to think we’ll ever come up with an agreement, and anything short of a worldwide agreement (like doing all the things in this article to reduce emissions by 8%) is meaningless and will delay the “catastrophe” by a matter of months, but have economic and lifestyle implications for all.

david popp
david popp

GODS plan is to have the people of earth trust in HIM. We will not have to worry about the earthly things.   Believe and you will be saved.

The energy company's have the technology to have vehicles run on less gas . the GREED of wall street is the problem. How will they make money off solar.


Alec Sevins
Alec Sevins

@david popp James Inhofe claims global warming is a hoax because "God" wouldn't let us cause it. So, where exactly do you stand? Details matter.

Alec Sevins
Alec Sevins like.author.displayName 1 Like

@david popp Your sky-man hasn't done a thing to stop deforestation, overfishing, species extinctions, general air & water pollution, radioactive waste buildup, aquifer depletion, wars with millions of casualties, genocides, and so on.

I wouldn't bank on supernatural miracles if you're a student of history or logic.

Brian Rasmussen
Brian Rasmussen

If the earth really does warm up significantly, that will mean the thawing of Antarctica.  Think of all of the new farmland that would be uncovered!  Let's accelerate global warming.

Zen Galacticore
Zen Galacticore

@Brian Rasmussen - Sure, great scenario. Except that, if all the ice in Antarctica melts, sea levels will rise by over 300 feet, effectively negating any increase in arable land provided by the formerly frozen continent.

And for all we know, if such a melting occurred, Antarctica could become an ice free, cold, but dry continent with little rainfall.

Jose Ortiz
Jose Ortiz like.author.displayName 1 Like

Remedy A: Conservation, renewables, get rid of coal, conservation, renewables, get rid of coal. Decrease in CO2 emissions after accounting for demand growth? Hrm. We see a decreasing CO2 offset per dollar with every dollar spent, as power does not follow load (is non-dispatchable) and energy density is low; large areas of land-use conversion. Diminishing returns guaranteed through economics and physics. Exponentially decaying CO2 offset per dollar, proportional to capacity replaced, as most useful applications are cherry-picked first. Cost of beautiful planet for children: Extremely high. Most likely scenario, ugly planet.

Remedy B: Replace base-load power with nuclear power plants. Replace industrial heat sources with nuclear power plants. Replace desalination plants with nuclear power plants. Replace transportation fuels with synthetic fuels via high temperature nuclear reactors. Diminishing-returns effect dramatically reduced, as power follows load (is dispatchable) and energy density is a factor of million higher; minimal land-use conversion. Mostly-linear CO2 offset per dollar. Cost of beautiful plant for children: Low. Most likely scenario, beautiful planet. Will it happen anyways due to economics and physics? Yes. Simply so. But a push could make it happen sooner.

Gagarin Miljkovich
Gagarin Miljkovich like.author.displayName 1 Like

What's the plan B, if the warming/climate change doesn't stop!?

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