By Mechthild Wörsdörfer and Tom Howes
This article was published by the International Energy Agency on Dec. 12, 2020.
2015 was a critical year for climate action
Saturday 12 December is a milestone: it is the fifth anniversary of the signing of the Paris Agreement on climate change by world leaders at COP21 in 2015.
The Paris Agreement was a huge moment for global climate action. Its signatories agreed to reduce emissions in a “nationally determined” manner and cut man-made greenhouse gas emissions to zero. The goal is to limit the global temperature increase to well below 2°C to avoid tremendous economic, social and environmental disruption and costs. The agreement also put two other key objectives on an equal footing with the emissions reduction goal, namely climate change adaptation and making financial flows consistent with low-carbon, climate-resilient pathways. And it enhanced the system for transparent tracking of these bottom-up nationally determined contributions (NDCs).
The Paris Agreement has been ratified by 189 of the 197 signatories ─ with scope for more to do so. Since the signing, governments, companies and citizens around the world have started to take action. Indeed, addressing this existential threat is the global challenge we face.
This has meant a special responsibility for the IEA, which as the global energy authority has a mandate to promote energy security, economic development and environmental protection. Keeping the lights and heaters on, keeping transport moving, these are themselves critical dimensions of our economies and lives. And we have to make sure we can keep doing them in a sustainable way. Energy is not a problem – emissions are the problem.
The IEA has looked at the energy sector’s impact on climate for more than a decade, and we have significantly ramped up our efforts in recent years under the leadership of Executive Director Dr Fatih Birol, with a focus on supporting countries in their transitions to clean energy. Energy systems that continue to worsen climate change are making all of us more vulnerable and less secure.
Leading global clean energy transitions
The IEA’s work is centred around clean energy transitions and supporting governments in their efforts to reach net-zero emissions. This is becoming more feasible as the costs of renewable energy like solar and wind decline and the scope for clean energy jobs grows. As we address this challenge, we are very aware that a large part of the world still needs to increase its energy consumption. Nearly 800 million people lack any kind of access to electricity – and millions more cannot afford the basic energy services that many of us take for granted. There is no sustainable energy future if they are left behind: clean energy transitions must ensure everyone has access to modern, reliable and affordable energy.
In 2017, our World Energy Outlook flagship publication introduced the Sustainable Development Scenario, which maps out a path to simultaneously meeting three major elements of the UN Sustainable Development Goals – tackling climate change, achieving universal access to energy and reducing the severe health impacts of air pollution. In this year’s edition, we examined what would need to happen to reach net-zero emissions globally by 2050. In addition, our revamped Energy Technology Perspectives series called for an urgent focus on accelerating innovation to ensure the clean energy technologies we need to get to net-zero emissions are ready in time.
Five years ago, when Dr Birol became the new Executive Director of the IEA, he launched a modernization strategy that included an open door policy to expand the IEA family of governments to include major emerging economies such as Brazil, China, India, Indonesia and South Africa. The IEA family now covers 75 per cent of the world’s energy demand, up from 38 per cent in 2015. The IEA is also host of the Clean Energy Ministerial Secretariat, which is supporting strengthened global cooperation on advancing clean energy technologies worldwide, as well as other global forums including the Energy Efficiency Hub, and serving as the facilitator for the Biofuture Platform. Through our convening power, we’re also increasingly bringing together the world’s leaders to focus on accelerating global clean energy transitions.
The IEA responded to calls from its members to work more deeply with major emerging economies by launching the Clean Energy Transitions Programme in 2017. This has resulted in projects to improve or implement energy efficiency policies, innovation, investment and financing, low-carbon power systems, carbon pricing, and data and statistics. Today, we are further expanding this type of work with sub-Saharan African countries.
Implementing clean energy policies to support Paris Agreement goals
In terms of climate adaptation and resilience, which are key elements of the Paris Agreement, the IEA is expanding its energy security and climate resilience work. Our recent Power Systems in Transition report on the evolving challenges of electricity security included a focus on how to make these systems more resilient to climate change impacts such as extreme weather events – and more detailed analysis on this topic is coming soon. We have also just released a new tool based on comprehensive data that helps understand and analyze how weather affects energy systems around the world. The energy sector, like many others, is highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.
Finally, to support the Paris Agreement’s broader tracking system, the IEA continues to work to help strengthen countries’ energy data and statistics. Providing transparent energy data globally is a core function of the IEA. We have formally partnered with the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in the greenhouse gas inventory review process, working on improving data timeliness and granularity. We improve transparency through our annual Global Energy Review of key trends in demand and emissions, and through tracking energy R&D spending, energy efficiency progress, and other important climate and energy indicators.
Progress on clean energy transitions has been accelerating. The IEA highlighted that 2019 –when global emissions plateaued after years of increases – could become the historic peak in emissions if governments acted to strengthen clean energy policies and investments. But then came the Covid-19 pandemic, which has taken a huge human toll and inflicted economic and social hardship around the entire world.
The Covid-19 crisis brought major disruption to many sectors of the global economy, and the energy sector was not spared. Energy-related emissions may have temporarily dropped – but investment has also fallen sharply, progress on energy efficiency has slowed, and the number of people without access to electricity has increased.
Our analysis has clearly shown that the world is not on track for a sustainable future without a much greater global push by governments to accelerate clean energy transitions. On that front, there is still cause for optimism. The announcements of ambitions to achieve net-zero emissions by the middle of the century from the European Union, Japan, South Korea and China and other governments are clearly to be welcomed. But they need to design and implement effective policy measures coherently across a broad range of sectors to make these ambitious goals a reality. And they need reliable data and indicators to monitor their progress.
The IEA has already been at the forefront of efforts to achieve this – including through our direct work with major economies to support their clean energy policy-making. And through our broader analysis and policy advice on how to put clean energy at the heart of economic recovery plans in the near term – and how to foster structural changes and technology innovation in the medium term. All of this directly supports clean energy transitions and improved NDCs under the Paris Agreement.
Creating jobs, spurring growth and reducing emissions
The IEA highlighted early on in the Covid-19 crisis that economic stimulus and recovery plans needed to be used to support clean energy transitions. We provided vital early damage assessments of the impact of the crisis on the energy sector through the data and insights in various reports such as the Global Energy Review, World Energy Investment, and Tracking Clean Energy Progress. We also began publishing monthly electricity data to track energy demand impacts.
Our Sustainable Recovery Plan, published in June, went a step further by providing governments around the world with a menu of concrete measures that would boost economic growth, create new jobs and put emissions into structural decline. The plans now being produced by governments around the world need to address the severe economic damage suffered by millions of businesses and households. Our plan shows that they can do this while also helping to tackle other major economic, social and environmental challenges that predate the pandemic and will remain after it fades.
Bridging energy, economic and climate goals
We have also strengthened our engagement with governments and international institutions, working with the International Monetary Fund on our Sustainable Recovery Plan – and co-organizing with key partners a series of ministerial-level events on economic recovery and clean energy investment, as well as ones with a focus on key regions such as Africa and Latin America. In July, we held the first IEA Clean Energy Transitions Summit, bringing together UN Secretary General António Guterres and 40 ministers from countries representing almost 80 per cent of global energy consumption and carbon emissions.
In addition, the IEA has further deepened its involvement in the broader climate conversation, including active engagement with the Climate Week events around the world. Dr Birol is a member of the COP26 UK Presidency’s Energy Transition Council, supporting efforts to improve cooperation and speed up transitions to affordable, low-carbon, inclusive and resilient energy systems. This fits perfectly with the IEA’s own mission. Clean energy transitions are at the heart of our energy dialogues. In the coming year, the G20, G7 and other Ministerial meetings will be the chance for us all to encourage each other, learn from each other and seek to outdo each other in ambitious plans and concrete policies.
The culmination of all of these efforts will be COP26 in Glasgow in December 2021 when we hope to see world leaders gathering again, six years after the Paris Agreement, to take another major step forward for climate action.
So, on this anniversary, the IEA – headquartered here in Paris – is proud to be working with our members and the other key members of the IEA family to shape a secure and sustainable future for all.
We remain ready – with our unrivalled data and analysis, with our ambitious scenarios and country cooperation programmes – to show how clean energy transitions can be accelerated around the world in a secure way that benefits all citizens. We remain ready to help design plans, improve NDCs and build momentum in the months ahead.
At COP21 in Paris, countries around the world set out a path for achieving their shared goals. We hope COP26 in Glasgow will be remembered as the moment when the world made clear it was truly committed to meeting those goals.