The International Energy Agency gave environmentalists cause for celebration earlier this month when it reported that carbon dioxide emissions in 2016 remained unchanged from the levels reached in 2014 and 2015. Analysts are hopeful that this could represent the end of the upward trend that CO2 emissions have seen since 1980.
Emissions stalled despite continuing growth in the global economy, thanks to greater use of renewable energy, productive efforts in the direction of better energy efficiency, and replacing coal with natural gas for power generation.
At 32.1 gigatons, CO2 emissions in 2016 stayed unchanged in Europe and increased in most of the emerging economies, bar China, which, along with the U.S., was the only country where the emissions actually fell. In the U.S., the decline brought emissions to their lowest level since 1992, with the IEA noting that between 1992 and 2016, the country’s economy grew by 80 percent.
So far so good – renewable energy accounted for the bulk of the increase in energy generation last year, economies transformed to accommodate better energy efficiency initiatives, and natural gas continued squeezing out coal.
However, IEA’s chief Fatih Birol advised wary optimism, saying this was just the beginning of a trend, and a lot more work would need to be done in the years ahead to start cutting CO2 emissions.
Indeed, in a more recent news release, the IEA said that the world needs “an energy transition of exceptional scope, depth and speed” in order to meet the Paris Agreement target of limiting temperature rises to below 2°C. This transition, the IEA said, involves capping any further rises in CO2 emissions before 2020 and cutting them by as much as 70 percent by 2050. Related: The Wealthiest Oil & Gas Billionaires In The U.S.
Among the targets that the world has to meet to enable this transformation, the IEA lists the following: 7 out of 10 new cars need to be electric (versus 1 in 100 currently); the entire building stock of the world will need to be retrofitted for greater energy efficiency; $3.5 trillion will need to be invested in the energy industry every year until 2050 – that’s twice the current level of investments.
These targets certainly seem challenging. The global economy will continue to grow, and it’s anyone’s guess whether this growth will be matched by the growth in renewable energy use and energy efficiency advancements. The fact that emissions in Europe stayed the same instead of dropping, given the continent’s commitment to green energy, already casts a shadow on the sunny mood brought about by IEA’s CO2 report.
And then there’s some more bad news. It’s not just CO2 emissions that need to be curbed in a bid to limit climate change – methane is about 30 times more potent as a heat-trapping gas, and there was a piece of not so good news recently regarding methane. Related: Saudi Aramco IPO Under Pressure, As 9/11 Lawsuits And Oil Prices Hit
A peer-reviewed study published in the Environmental Science and Technology found that methane emissions from natural gas-fueled power plants and oil refineries may be substantially higher than previously believed, thanks to leaks. In fact, the authors have estimated that hourly methane emissions from gas-fired plants could be between 21 and 120 times higher than currently reported by plant operators in the U.S. Together, the emissions of gas-fired plants and refineries could be 20 times higher than reported.
The results of this study are not conclusive, and research will continue, but they do raise the question of how reliable the emissions data is that numerous reports and forecasts are based on, driving legislation and initiatives aimed at curbing the harmful effects that certain chemicals have on the atmosphere. This is just one more question to add to a growing list: How will governments and carmakers incentivize people to buy electric cars (and how much will the recharging infrastructure cost)? Where will the additional $1.75 trillion for energy sector investment come from? How will the whole global building stock be retrofitted, and how much it will cost? We need to find some plausible answers to these questions, urgently, if the IEA is to be proven right.
By Irina Slav for Oilprice.com
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