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The world is off course to prevent two degrees C of warming, says energy agency

Plumes of water vapor emit from the Tennessee Valley Authority Paradise Fossil Plant in Paradise, Ky., in 2013. (Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg News)
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This story has been updated.

In a major report to be released Monday, the Paris-based International Energy Agency — which provides independent energy analysis and has 29 member countries, including the United States — will state that current national commitments to cut greenhouse gases are still insufficient to keep the world below two degrees Celsius of warming above preindustrial levels. At the same time, the agency will also offer a path forward, showing how the world, with a bit more ambition, could peak its emissions by the year 2020 and get onto a safer path.

Since 2010, the two-degree target has been a core feature of international attempts to stave off the worst consequences of global warming. It is central to a major December meeting in Paris organized under the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, where it is hoped that countries will agree upon new global emissions reductions.

In advance of December’s Paris meeting, many nations have submitted Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, or INDCs, detailing their plans to limit their emissions. The United States has pledged to reduce its emissions 26 to 28 percent below their 2005 levels by 2025. The European Union is widely regarded as having one of the most ambitious goals – a cut of 40 percent or more below 1990 levels, by the year 2030.

The new IEA analysis took into account INDCs submitted by May 14 of this year and analyzed announced climate policies of nations such as China that have not submitted INDCs yet. It found that in the absence of further actions, the current commitments alone will not keep the world below the two-degree threshold.

“If stronger action is not forthcoming after 2030, the path in the INDC Scenario would be consistent with an average temperature increase of around 2.6 °C by 2100 and 3.5 °C after 2200,” notes the report.

The IEA is not the first organization to suggest that the world is off its target — other analyses have reached similar conclusions — but its analysis is probably the most definitive.

[Report: Global emissions goals still aren’t enough to prevent dangerous warming]

“What IEA says is consistent with other analyses, but I think this adds a lot of weight because of their reach and their reputation in the energy world,” says Nathaniel Keohane, vice president for international climate at the Environmental Defense Fund.

Economic growth between 2013 and 2030 will be 88 percent, the agency projects; at the same time, the world’s emissions from energy use will grow 8 percent under a scenario that takes the INDCs into account. That’s major progress — it represents a substantial “decoupling” of economic growth from carbon dioxide emissions as we shift into a world where renewables are the top electricity source.

“All in all, it looks like a significantly different energy picture than today,” Fatih Birol, the IEA’s chief economist, said in an interview.

However, the IEA says, it’s still not enough.

“With the INDCs submitted so far, and the planned energy policies in countries that have yet to submit, the world’s estimated remaining carbon budget consistent with a 50% chance of keeping the rise in temperature below 2°C is consumed by around 2040 — eight months later than is projected in the absence of INDCs,” the IEA report states.

One reason is that there would still be quite a lot of fossil energy online — “inefficient coal-fired power generation capacity declines only slightly” in the 2030 scenario outlined by the IEA.

The U.S., in the scenario studied by the IEA, is a very different country when it comes to energy. “Based on current INDCs, the United States is projected to deliver the largest absolute reduction in energy-related CO2 emissions of any country in the world from 2013 to 2025,” notes the report, although on a per capita basis, we’d still be one of the largest emitters.

With a population of 30 million more people, energy demand in the U.S. would nonetheless not increase much by 2025 — even as renewables grow to exceed 20 percent of total electricity generation (still slightly behind a much weakened coal sector, at 23 percent). The biggest emissions gains, though, would actually come from ever-improving vehicle fuel economy standards.

The U.S. is thus typical of the overall IEA picture — a country that will do a great deal, but not necessarily enough. The agency therefore calls for stronger steps to cut emissions — including a global peak in energy emissions by 2020, and a process to check where nations are on their goals every five years.

The peak, in particular, is crucial. “This is the only way that we still have chances to reach our climate goals,” said the IEA’s Birol.

The emphasis on a peak is a refreshing way of looking at what the world needs to achieve, says the Environmental Defense Fund’s Keohane, who is familiar with the IEA report. “For us to get to any long term stabilization target, the first thing we have to do is turn the corner on emissions,” he said. “The peak, that’s something that can happen in the near term and get us on the right trajectory.”

The IEA says the world can peak emissions by 2020 by pursuing five policies simultaneously: ramping up renewables, ramping down coal use, investing heavily in energy efficiency, cutting fossil fuel subsidies, and quickly capping emissions of the hard-hitting but short-lived climate pollutant methane.

Given how difficult two degrees C will be to meet, it is rather striking to contemplate that many nations — especially many developing countries with lower levels of emissions — prefer a 1.5-degree target, calling it considerably safer.

[Scientists: This is what it would take to keep the world super safe from global warming]

But of course, that would be still harder to achieve. A recent study in Nature Climate Change found that to hit that target, it would actually be necessary to first overshoot it, and then move backwards through “negative emissions” technologies — hopefully to be widely available later this century — that pull carbon dioxide back out of the air again.

“It would be ideal if Paris could come up with an agreement that [gets to two degrees C],” Birol said. “However, if it doesn’t get there, it shouldn’t be considered as a failure if the important cornerstones are put in place, especially around the energy sector, to give the right signal to the investors.”

Also in Energy & Environment:

This conservative businessman thinks he can change the GOP’s mind on climate change

Climate engineering would cool down the planet — but it may not save West Antarctica

Just looking at nature can help your brain work better, study finds

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