The International Energy Agency (IEA) — an autonomous energy research group supported by 28 industrialized countries, including the U.S — reported on Monday that the world is wildly off-target in its effort — if you can call it that — to limit global temperature rise to only 2 degrees Celsius relative to pre-industrial levels. Last year saw the highest level of energy-related carbon dioxide emissions ever, and the Earth is on a path to warm between 3.6 and 5.3 degrees, an outcome the World Bank recently warned would be very disruptive to human civilization.
But, the IEA report noted, there are some things that world governments can do to get global emissions back in line, and “at no net economic cost.” Sounds impossible — like Mitt Romney’s “no regrets” energy plan from his 2012 campaign. Is the IEA really saying that was a great idea?
The agency doesn’t map out anything like a broad transition to cleaner energy, the long-term goal that scientists recommend. Instead, the analysis offers policies for a world in which politicians have so far refused to establish such a long-term plan. The IEA reckons that building more efficient buildings, promoting energy-sipping lighting and appliances, limiting coal burning in the electricity sector, cutting methane emissions in fuel production and slashing fossil fuel subsidies would merely “keep the door open” to meeting the 2 degrees goal through 2020.
But after that? There is a limit to how much these policies can achieve. At some point, nations will have to do much the harder work of transitioning off fossil fuel — not just wasting less — if they choose to take the warnings of experts seriously and hedge hard against the risks climate change poses. The IEA is clear that its program is nothing more than a short-term bridge, not a full-fledged climate plan.
It would be better, in fact, if policymakers started to implement policies that look farther ahead, such as reasonably-sized carbon taxes now, not after 2020. The energy business involves lots of expensive investments in infrastructure that lasts for decades. The sooner more companies start to factor carbon into their calculations, the better.