National Governments Are Failing on Clean Energy in All but 3 Areas, IEA says

Only wind and solar, electric vehicles and energy storage are on track, a new report says. A lack of strong national climate change policies is part of the problem.

Solar installation in cities
The IEA finds that nations are lagging in all but three of 26 key technologies. Solar and wind power, electric vehicles and energy storage are on track. The other areas need work. Credit: Kevin Frayer

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Nations around the globe are falling behind in all but three of the key technologies needed for a transition to a cleaner, low-emissions economy, and a lack of national policy leadership is part of the problem, according to a new report from the International Energy Agency (IEA).

The report, released Tuesday, did not focus on U.S. policies per se and was written before President Donald Trump announced that he would pull the U.S. out of the Paris climate agreement. Nevertheless, it presciently highlights the cumulative negative effects that a lack of strong national leadership can have on critical transition steps, such as establishing energy efficiency standards and investing in clean energy research and development.

In all, the IEA tracked 26 energy technologies that will need to be adopted widely if nations are to meet the ambitious emissions reduction goals of the Paris Agreement. Experts believe nations have to make progress in everything from carbon capture and storage to lowering emissions in the cement industry to scaling up renewable energy to keep Earth’s temperature from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius. With “unprecedented policy action, as well as efforts and engagement from all stakeholders,” global energy could be carbon neutral by 2060 and keep temperatures from rising above 1.75 degrees Celsius, the report said.

Yet the IEA found that in all but three of the 26 technologies—solar and wind power, electric vehicles and energy storage—nations were making insufficient progress. For example, the world needs to capture and store 400 million tons of industrial-created carbon emissions annually by 2025, yet financial indecision has stalled carbon capture and storage technology projects, the report said. Similarly, the world continues to add coal plants, and 30 percent of these in 2015 were not particularly efficient, the report said.

Kamel Ben Naceur, director for sustainability, technology and outlooks at IEA, who spoke to reporters about the findings of Energy and Technology Perspectives 2017, said that in at least eight of the categories, nations were so “off track” that a “renewed policy focus” was required to move forward.

The IEA explained how government interventions are key to kickstarting these technologies. The report said, for example, that carbon taxes are necessary to encourage less emissions in critical sectors like aviation and international shipping. Fuel economy standards and targets can help reduce emissions from transportation, and energy efficiency policies can help cut emissions from buildings, it said. It also noted that progress in battery storage and electric vehicles could be compromised if friendly regulations and tax incentives were withdrawn.

America’s outlook for energy varies somewhat from the global picture. Whereas the global appetite for coal has been steady and growing, U.S. use of coal for electricity generation has dropped from 1 billion tons in 2000 to 600 million tons in 2016. As of January of this year, the U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA) predicted coal would continue to decline as it is replaced with natural gas and renewable energy.

Yet, despite its progress so far, America shares the same vulnerability to lack of clean energy leadership as other nations. EIA has said that its predictions that coal use will decline are based on current policies, including the Clean Power Plan. In March, Trump signed an executive order gutting those Obama-era regulations. The Clean Power Plan is still tied up in litigation. If Trump wins, and the power plan is successfully repealed, the EIA predicts that coal use for electricity will hold steady or even rise.

Both the EIA and the IEA have been wrong in their projections before, most notably in their pessimistic assessment of the speed at which renewable energy would catch on. This time, however, Christopher Namovicz, a renewable energy forecaster with the EIA said, the prediction was most likely in danger of being too optimistic on clean energy. “The complication for 2017 is that the Clean Power Plan is a potential significant impactor on the growth of the renewables,” he said.

Perhaps the areas where national leadership is most obviously lacking around the world, the report noted, are in energy efficiency standards and in investment in research and development. Nearly two-thirds of countries still do not have building energy codes in place, for example, the report stated.

More worrisome, global investment in clean energy research, development and demonstration, most of it from governments, has been flat at $26 billion since 2015, which could have serious consequences for the future. “Clean energy RD&D has been essential in providing us with the clean technology options of today,” the report noted.

In the U.S., the Trump administration has called for massive budgets cuts to science and research at the Department and Energy and beyond, however. Trump has proposed cutting $900 million from the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, and 69 percent of the $2 billion budget of the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. EERE’s research and development in clean cars and renewable energy would be cut by more than 70 percent, and weatherization programs that reduce energy use through greater efficiency in the United States would be eliminated.