How’s the world doing on its climate goals? Not so well.

at 09:38 AM ET, 04/29/2012

Each year, the International Energy Agency puts out a study of what technological advances are needed to keep global warming below 2°C. The 2012 report (pdf) is out and the grades are dismal: Aside from a recent boom in wind and solar power, the world isn’t making much progress.


If this is the future we might need a bit more of it. (PETER PARKS - AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
The IEA doesn’t just look at recent trends in greenhouse-gas emissions — after all, those can rise and fall with the economy. Instead, it looks at what clean-energy technologies are actually coming online. If the world wants to avoid a 2°C rise in global temperatures (and here’s an explanation of why we might want to do that), then we’ll need a certain amount of low-carbon infrastructure in place by 2020, the IEA says. That means a mix of wind turbines, nuclear reactors, energy-efficient cars and buildings, and so on. And, for most of those things, countries are way behind. Here’s a rundown:

Cleaning up coal plants. The IEA has recommended that countries around the world need to have at least 38 coal plants that capture and store the carbon up and running by 2020 in order to stay on pace to meet that 2°C climate target. Currently, there are no such plants operating. What’s more, the report notes, nearly half of the new coal plants built in 2010 aren’t even up to the latest efficiency standards.

Nuclear power. The IEA has estimated that the world’s nuclear power capacity needs to nearly double by 2025 to help meet climate targets. Right now, nuclear capacity is actually shrinking. Countries like Germany, Japan, Belgium and Switzerland are planning on phasing out their reactors in the next decade. While many countries are still building reactors — China alone has 26 in the works, and Russia has 10 — the IEA expects the world to miss its nuclear goals.

Solar, wind and other renewables. Here the IEA is more optimistic, noting that solar-panel prices are plummeting, countries are building hydropower dams and geothermal plants at a rapid clip, and wind turbines are sprouting up everywhere. Countries are making slower progress on advanced renewables, such as concentrated solar power plants and offshore wind turbines. But in the past decade, renewable power has been growing at a 27 percent annual rate, and if it continues that pace, renewables should meet the IEA’s expectations.

Vehicle fuel economy. The IEA estimates that fuel economy needs to improve by an average of 2.7 percent per year by 2030 in order to keep the share of emissions from transportation under control. We’re not on pace there, either. Right now, the cars and trucks of the world are getting more efficient at a 1.7 percent annual pace. Some countries — like the EU and the United States — are improving quite steadily. Others, like India, are actually becoming less fuel efficient, although that’s largely because more and more people are now able to buy vehicles.

Buildings. The IEA argues that improving the energy efficiency of buildings is one of the easiest ways for the world to rein in its carbon emissions. Residential and commercial buildings, after all, account for 32 percent of energy use around the world. And for the most part, people know how to insulate buildings better, install efficient lighting, and so forth. But with a few exceptions, most countries have been slow to adopt stricter building codes, to promote solar thermal systems to heat buildings, and to speed along the adoption of energy-efficient appliances.

If the world wanted to make a concerted push to meet this 2°C target, the IEA notes, then all of these different sectors — from electricity to vehicles to buildings — would have to chip in to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Here’s what this looks like in graph form. “6DS” is the track we’re currently on, with a balmy 6°C of warming in our future. To get down to “2DS,” or 2°C, a whole bunch of sectors need to contribute:

Right now, however, only renewables are pulling their weight. The IEA says the main problem is that most countries don’t have stable, reliable policies to promote these clean-energy technologies. They recommend the usual batch of solutions — a price on fossil fuels, new standards for energy efficiency, and more money for research and development.

All told, the IEA estimates, meeting that 2°C target would require $5 trillion in energy investments between now and 2020. That, in turn, would save $4 trillion in fossil fuel costs. And, over the next 40 years, the benefits from energy savings and reduced emissions would keep growing and eventually outweigh the costs. For now, though, the world’s nowhere near that point.

 
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