Oil Change International, the very model of an activist climate think tank, has released an excellent critique of the International Energy Agency’s (IEA’s) climate scenarios. It’s called Off Track: The IEA and Climate Change, and it’s well worth your time. Also note that the principle author of the report, Greg Muttitt, has recorded a concise webinar version of the report which is archived here.
This is pretty technical stuff, but if given that the IEA’s New Policy Scenario is one of the most influential climate / energy projections in all the world, and given that it is massively inconsistent with the Paris temperature goals, it’s also pretty important.
Just one specific point. The IEA not only has its New Policy Scenario, it also has its so-called Sustainable Development Scenario, and even this latter scenario is nowhere close to being consistent with the Paris temperature goals. Moreover, the IEA’s conception of this more stringent scenario is nowhere close to being equitable.
This graphic, from the Oil Change report, makes this clear. It shows that, in the IEA’s view, the bulk of the reductions that need to be made if we’re to increase ambition from the from the New Policy level to the Sustainable Development level, should be made in the developing countries.
If this is what passes for realism in the IEA, we’ve really got a problem.
“I must add that Drawdown is not yet a tonic strong enough to cure the dystopian plague that has come to penetrate most all our visions of the future. It illuminates the techno-economic path forward, and it insists that social justice is also a prime concern, but on this second front it offers almost nothing that is concrete, specific and believable. To be truly “comprehensive,” a deep-decarbonization plan must recognize the dire threat which economic stratification poses to our ability to mobilize, and reveal the mechanisms by which we will learn, again, to cooperate. Which is to say that, when it comes to both domestic and global environmental justice, an ethos is not enough. The deeply political, justice-based side of the climate-transition equation needs a lot more attention than it gets here, and it needs it now.
But Drawdown’s catalog of solutions omits long-term democratic planning, which is essential to any true deep-decarbonization roadmap. It makes no mention of the overarching challenge of ensuring a just transition, one in which all those whose lives will be disrupted by the climate transition are, somehow, made whole, or at least whole enough. (Think coal miners, but think too of all the communities and even countries that are dependent on the fossil-fuel economy.) It talks of “net costs,” but it does not talk about winners and losers, as if any acceptable pricing system could gloss over the challenge of today’s obscene level of inequality. There’s no discussion of progressive approaches to climate taxation, without which we haven’t got a snowball’s chance. There’s no mention of cap-and-dividend systems, or energy-subsidy reform, or the international finance and technology support systems that will be necessary if the Paris Agreement is to deliver. Or of fair trade. Or of class.”
There are two especially notable comments on the report, Bill McKibben’s Recalculating the Climate Math and George Monbiot’s What Lies Beneath. The first because it very clearly explains why we must immediately stop investing in fossil infrastructure (and it was McKibben who in 2012, with his blockbuster Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math, first drew the political implications of “the carbon budget approach” out into the public discussion). The second because it displays all the virtues of Monbiot’s usual bitter realism, and because it’s marred by a small but instructive overstatement, one to which I will return.
The core argument
In the report’s core, OCI draws out a new and critical implication of the carbon budget approach. It does so by going beyond the now classic Carbon Tracker analysis (the foundation of McKibben’s 2012 article), updating it by focusing not on the entire body of fossil-fuel reserves, but on the smaller set (roughly 30% of the “proven” reserves) of reserves that have already been “developed” – the “oil fields, gas fields, and coal mines that are already in operation or under construction.” By so doing, OCI is able to harness the vast power of what some wag, somewhere, once called “the first law of holes” — when you’re in one, stop digging.
Here are the report’s headline conclusions:
* The potential carbon emissions from the oil, gas, and coal in the world’s currently operating fields and mines would take us beyond 2°C of warming.
* The reserves in currently operating oil and gas fields alone, even with no coal, would take the world beyond 1.5°C.
* With the necessary decline in production over the coming decades to meet climate goals, clean energy can be scaled up at a corresponding pace, expanding the total number of energy jobs.
“many developing countries made huge strides towards deploying renewable technologies over the past decade — but this rise is now leveling off. Instead, these countries are turning towards fossil fuels to meet the energy demands of their citizens.”
“Nicholas Wagner, an IRENA programme officer who helped prepare the report, says countries such as Brazil, Ethiopia, Kenya and Nigeria “have a high share of renewable biomass as part of their energy portfolios.” [This is mostly traditional biomass.] But rather than rapidly building out their infrastructures with modern renewables, these countries have “turned to fossil fuels to power greater demand for heating, cooling and transport, he says.”
“Beate Braams, a spokesperson for Germany’s energy ministry, says the drop in the proportion of energy coming from renewables in developing countries could be because growing energy needs are largely being met by other sources. “If there is a growing energy demand in an economy and if this additional demand is covered by fossil fuels, the relative share of renewables will decrease, even if there is no decrease in absolute terms for renewable energy,” she explains.”
Very nice piece by William D. Cohan in The Nation, here.
I’m a full-time climate guy, but even so I rarely encounter this kind of honesty. In particular, the whole under-theorized problem of “stranded assets” has become a source of odd optimism. As if the ground truths of the Carbon Bubble will somehow, decisively tip the scales towards rationality and long-term thinking.
It’s not going to happen, not in any simple way. The fossil cartel breeds confident, exterminist ideologues. Its captains have the power to persevere in their beliefs. Not, perhaps, forever, but for a long time yet.
Jason Marks, the editor of the increasingly interesting Earth Island Journal, asked me to be the “minus” in Peak Oil – Are we there yet? — a debate on Peak Oil and Climate Change. The “plus” side is argued by Aaron G. Lehmer-Chang of Bay Localize. He definitely has a point, though, personally, I think I make the stronger argument, in a brief piece called Peak Oil as Wishful thinking. Alas, my son doesn’t like it. He particularly doesn’t like the phrase “shock troops of idiot neoliberalism.”
And now comes the second Carbon Bubble report, Wasted Capital, which was just released. It’s Phase II of the project and, far from being a rehash, it’s proof that the fundamental approach is sound. In fact, it’s huge news. Lord Stern (of the Stern Review) is now fronting. The modeling has been fine tuned, and now shows – among other things – that Carbon Capture and Sequestration is extremely unlikely to save our bacon. There’s an improved geographic analysis which shows just how hard the Carbon Bubble is going to hit the emerging economies of the developing world. There’s a huge amount of evidence that, not just stars like Jeremy Grantham but mainline financial analysts around the world are taking the argument on-board, and in a big way. There’s even a bit of speculation about how this is all going to interact with new round of the climate negotiations, which will reach their (next) crisis in the winter of 2015, six years after Copenhagen.