Where are we on the road to a clean energy future? – IEA

clean energy
The IEA works to support countries as they undertake their own clean energy transitions (Photograph: Shutterstock)

Oil demand peaks soon after coal, with demand decline from transport: electric vehicles are 40% of new passenger car sales by 2030

By Caroline Lee, IEA Energy and Climate Change Policy Analyst

All around the world, sustainable energy transitions are underway. But how far we have progressed? It’s clear that action needs to be accelerated, but in which priority areas, and by how much?

Tracking energy transition indicators of both outcomes (e.g. CO2 emissions) and underlying drivers (e.g. clean energy investment) is important for developing a clear understanding of how far we’ve come, while additionally propelling further ambition and action. As the adage goes, “that which is measured, improves.

This year, countries around the world are undertaking an important exercise to assess global progress toward achieving the goals laid out in the Paris Agreement. This exercise – the Talanoa Dialogue – is intended not only to take stock of progress, but also to help inform and raise ambition of the next round of nationally determined contributions (NDCs) – commitments made by countries to tackle climate change.

Increased ambition is greatly needed: the IEA estimates that current NDCs will set us on a path consistent with about 2.7°C warming by 2100, greatly overshooting the Paris Agreement goals of limiting temperature rise to well below 2°C and pursuing efforts towards 1.5 °C.

As a key input to the Talanoa Dialogue and broader tracking efforts, IEA will release Tracking Clean Energy Progress 2018 on 22 May, providing the current status of key energy indicators, measuring their progress today against what would be needed by 2030, and highlighting opportunities for further technology development and innovation.

The Talanoa Dialogue is structured around three questions: Where are we? Where do we want to go? How do we get there? The IEA’s full response to these questions can be read in our first official input to the Talanoa Dialogue.

Where are we?

The IEA estimates that in 2017, energy-related CO2 emissions rose 1.4% after remaining flat for three years, reaching a historic high of 32.5 Gt indicating that the stall in emissions from 2014-2016 does not yet reflect a peak. Though the 2017 emissions rise is moderate compared to historical rates, it heightens the already monumental challenge ahead. IEA analysis shows that emissions must peak around 2020 then show a steep decline afterwards to meet Paris Agreement goals.

This increase in emissions reflects strong underlying growth in energy demand, which grew an estimated 2.1% in 2017, double the rate of increase in 2016. While energy intensity – primary energy demand per unit of gross domestic product – has improved over time, this improvement slowed to 1.7% in 2017, compared with an average of 2.3% over the previous three years, and only half the annual improvement rate consistent with delivering the Paris Agreement goals.

The second critical factor is the carbon intensity of energy supply, which tracks CO2 emissions per unit of total primary energy supply. In 2017, the Energy Sector Carbon Intensity Index (ESCII)increased for the first time in three years as fossil fuels met over 70% of the growth in energy demand.

In fact, over the past three decades the ESCII has barely changed, indicating the energy supply has not become any “cleaner” on average over time. While significant progress has been made in deploying renewables, in particular solar PV and wind, the deployment of low-carbon energy has not kept up with energy demand growth. This remains a crucial challenge for the energy sector, as under an IEA scenario compatible with meeting Paris Agreement goals, the ESCII drops 22% by 2030.

Where do we want to go?

The IEA’s Sustainable Development Scenario (SDS) describes a pathway for the global energy sector that is compatible with Paris Agreement goals, while also achieving universal access to modern energy and substantially reducing air pollution. The SDS offers an integrated approach to addressing key energy and other challenges.

Compared to scenarios addressing only the climate mitigation objective, the SDS places a stronger emphasis on decentralised, modular low-carbon technologies (such as solar PV and wind) as a means to achieving multiple objectives. For example, there is roughly 50% more solar PV in this scenario than in previous IEA scenarios focused primarily on decarbonisation.

As low-carbon energy takes center stage in the SDS, fossil fuels step back substantially from their current position. Coal demand peaks very soon, around 2020. In stark comparison, the IEA estimates that coal demand grew in 2017 after a two-year decline and forecasts continued demand growth at least for the next five years, absent a change in policy and market conditions.

In the SDS, oil demand peaks soon after coal, with demand decline coming from transport: electric vehicles make up over 40% of new passenger car sales by 2030.

How do we get there?

As countries drive forward their ambition, a few guiding questions can help guide their paths forward.

First, how do investment patterns need to change? In IEA’s SDS, a modest 13% additional investment in energy is required to 2030 – a net of USD 4 trillion – relative to investment that would be required under the New Policies Scenario (NPS), which accounts only for current and announced policies. Annual supply-side investment to 2030 remains relatively flat from today’s levels, although a substantial shift occurs away from fossil-fuel supply and fossil-fuel power generation, for which investment falls by USD 2.8 trillion through 2030, moving towards toward low-carbon power supply and improving the energy efficiency of end-use sectors.

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Clean energy supply investment

Second, how much will technology costs decline? As clean technology costs continue to drop, ambition can be further raised. Looking ahead in the next five years, IEA forecasts that costs are expected to drop further by almost a quarter for large, utility-scale solar PV, almost 15% for onshore wind, and a third for offshore wind between 2017-2022 at the global scale. Towards 2030, costs are expected to continue declining. In IEA’s NPS for new utility-scale solar PV and electric vehicle batteries, costs approximately halve from 2016 to 2030.

Cost reductions clean energy

And finally how can an integrated approach enhance chances of success? A fundamental message emerging from all facets of IEA analysis is the need for an integrated technology and policy approach to drive and accelerate clean energy transitions based on a country’s national context.

For example, the recent declines in upstream fossil fuel investment illustrate the need for policy coordination. Although this change in itself may align with a low-carbon pathway, continued decreases in supply-side investment without commensurate measures to address rising energy demand create significant risks for energy security. As a second example, policies driving electrification can produce greater environmental benefits if implemented alongside ones to decarbonize electricity supply. 

Applying such an integrated policy approach requires significant national coordination and capacity, including domestic technology and policy expertise. The IEA will continue to share international best practice and advice, and support countries as they undertake their own clean energy transitions.

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