Global Carbon Emissions Unlikely to Peak Before 2040, IEA's Energy Outlook Warns

The world’s reliance on fossil fuels remains 'stubbornly high' when drastic changes are needed to slow climate change, the report says.

Industrial scene. Credit: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

"The world needs a grand coalition encompassing governments, companies, investors and everyone who is committed to tackling the climate challenge," said IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol. "In the absence of this, the chances of reaching climate goals will be very slim." Credit: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

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Carbon emissions are set to rise until 2040 even if governments meet their existing environmental targets, the International Energy Agency warned, providing a stark reminder of the drastic changes needed to alleviate the world's climate crisis.

In its annual World Energy Outlook, released on Wednesday, the IEA said a rapid reduction in emissions would require "significantly more ambitious policy action" in favor of efficiency and clean energy technologies than what is currently planned. Until then, the impact of an expanding world economy and growing populations on energy demand would continue to outweigh the push into renewables and lower-carbon technologies.

"The world needs a grand coalition encompassing governments, companies, investors and everyone who is committed to tackling the climate challenge," said Fatih Birol, IEA's executive director. "In the absence of this, the chances of reaching climate goals will be very slim."

 

The report noted the world's reliance on fossil fuels remained "stubbornly high," with a "gap between expectations of fast, renewables-driven energy transitions and the reality of today's energy systems."

Birol pointed out that the current set of government policies would not bring the world in line with the Paris climate agreement goals of limiting temperature rise to well below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6°F) compared to pre-industrial times, or the more aggressive 1.5°C (2.7°F) target.

Carbon emissions, mostly caused by the burning of hydrocarbons such as oil and coal, trap heat in the atmosphere, causing climate change. These emissions grew 44 percent between 2000 and 2018. Over the same period, global energy demand—with fossil fuels making up 80 percent—increased 42 percent.

'A Dangerous Climate Action Cul-de-Sac'

The IEA also modelled a "sustainable development" scenario of stricter energy efficiency policies and lower energy demand. While emissions would fall under this scenario, critics have said it does not go far enough in mapping the deep cuts needed to limit warming to 1.5°C.

Although the IEA's annual survey is considered the definitive assessment of the world's energy sector, its findings have been under scrutiny from critics who have deemed them too fossil fuel-friendly. Even under its most ambitious scenario, fossil fuels would still make up nearly 60 percent of the world's energy mix.

Joeri Rogelj, a lecturer in climate change and the environment at Imperial College London's Grantham Institute, said even this scenario "leads the world down a dangerous climate action cul-de-sac, which ends in 2050 with a world warming beyond a level science considers compatible with sustainable development of poor and vulnerable populations."

Fossil Fuel Subsidies vs. Clean Energy

The IEA noted that the global value of fossil fuel consumption subsidies in 2018 was nearly double the combined value of subsidies for renewable energy and electric vehicles as well as the revenue from global carbon pricing systems.

"This imbalance greatly complicates the task of achieving an early peak in emissions," the IEA said.

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