World needs a rapid expansion in low-carbon energy technologies, warns IEA

17 Apr 2013

The drive to clean up the world’s energy system has stalled – these were the words of the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) executive director Maria van der Hoeven, who was speaking today at the launch of the agency’s latest report on clean energy developments. The IEA is calling for a faster transition to low-carbon energy technologies to avoid rising global temperatures.

The IEA is presenting its findings from its latest clean energy progress report at its Clean Energy Ministerial in New Delhi, India. Ministers representing countries responsible for four-fifths of global greenhouse-gas emissions are at the two-day event.

The IEA’s report has examined the latest global development and deployment of 11 clean-energy technologies and end-use sectors. It also provides specific recommendations to governments on how to scale up deployment of these key technologies.

The take-up of renewable technologies is one of the few bright spots in an otherwise bleak assessment of progress towards low-carbon energy around the globe, according to the agency.

“Despite much talk by world leaders, and despite a boom in renewable energy over the last decade, the average unit of energy produced today is basically as dirty as it was 20 years ago,” said Van der Hoeven.

Wake-up call about CO2 emissions

The IEA’s report features a carbon intensity index for the energy sector to show how much carbon dioxide is emitted, on average, to provide a given unit of energy. This index stood at 2.39 tonnes of CO2 per tonne of oil equivalent (tCO2/toe) in 1990, and had barely moved by 2010, holding at 2.37 tCO2/toe, claims the agency.

Van der Hoeven warned that with world temperatures creeping higher as a result of increasing emissions of greenhouse gases like CO2 – two-thirds of which come from the energy sector – the overall lack of progress should signal a wake-up call.

“We cannot afford another 20 years of listlessness,” she said. “We need a rapid expansion in low-carbon energy technologies if we are to avoid a potentially catastrophic warming of the planet but we must also accelerate the shift away from dirtier fossil fuels.”

However, the IEA report features some positive figures about certain renewables. For instance, mature solar photovoltaics grew by 42pc between 2011 and 2012, while wind technologies grew by 19pc in that same timeframe.

The report also looks at how emerging economies are stepping up their efforts around clean energy, with Brazil, China and India having increased policy support for the renewable electricity sector last year.

Shale gas

In the US, the IEA points to how a revolution in shale gas technology has triggered a switch to gas from coal. However, coal use has grown in other global regions. In Europe, the share of coal has increased in the power generation mix at the expense of natural gas, according to the agency.

In relation to carbon capture and storage technologies, scientists at the IEA stressed that these technologies will not reach commercial deployment stage until governments start making commitments in the form of appropriate policies.

The report features several recommendations for governments to accelerate the deployment of clean-energy technologies. These include reflecting the true cost of energy in consumer prices and implementing long-term, predictable policies that will encourage investors to switch to low-carbon technologies.

Technologies like electric vehicles, wind and solar will also need government support for several years more, said the agency.

Carmel Doyle was a long-time reporter with Silicon Republic