CO2 from energy reaches record levels

11th June 2013

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The amount of carbon dioxide produced in generating the world's power reached a new high in 2012, but the growth in emissions could be halted if governments take action now, says International Energy Agency

Energy-related carbon emissions increased by 1.4% last year compared with 2011 levels, reaching an unprecedented 31.6 billion tonnes worldwide, according to the latest estimates from the International Energy Agency (IEA).

Falls in emissions from the US, as a result of the shift from coal to gas-fired generation, and from Europe’s continued economic contraction, were offset by rises from developing economies, in particular China where carbon emissions increased by 300 million tonnes during 2012.

The deployment of renewables, increased action to improve energy efficiency and regional caps on emissions from industry, have had some effect in lowering carbon output, but with fossil fuel subsidies continuing to outstrip support for low-carbon technologies and energy demand increasing, urgent action is needed before 2020 to retain the possibility of limiting global temperature rises to 2°C, warns the IEA’s latest special report.

“Climate change has quite frankly slipped to the back burner of policy priorities. But the problem is not going away – quite the opposite,” said IEA executive director Maria van der Hoeven. “If we continue with business as usual, [temperature] rise could be 5.3°C.”

The IEA predicts that, without further action to tackle emissions, energy-related greenhouse gas output will exceed levels consistent with a 2°C temperature rise by 4 billion tonnes a year in 2020.

However, it argues that 3.1 billion tonnes of emissions could be abated if governments around the world stepped up efforts to improve energy efficiency, lower fossil fuel subsidies, halve methane emissions from oil and gas production, and halt the use of inefficient coal-fired power stations.

“These four energy policies can keep the door open to the 2°C target without harming economic growth, and be implemented nationally with existing technologies,” commented Van der Hoeven. “They are proven, and feasible. Not only will acting on these policies save long-term costs to society as a whole, but the energy sector itself will see benefits in terms of reduced risks to infrastructure and projects.”

Almost half of the potential 2020 carbon savings (1.5 billion tonnes) come from improving energy efficiency, through the creation of energy performance standards for buildings, appliances and heating and cooling systems, for example. According to the IEA $200 billion of investment will be needed across the globe to achieve the savings, but the cost will be “more than offset by reduced fuel bills”.

Limiting the construction of new coal-fired plants and preventing the continued use of the most polluting plants can save a further 640 million tonnes of CO2. And, 360 million tonnes of carbon could be prevented if governments began a partial phase out of fossil fuel subsidies. According to the report, 15% of global carbon emissions receive support of $110 per tonne, while just 8% of emissions are subject to a carbon price.

According to the IEA, its four policy recommendations could be adopted immediately and would be cost neutral. It also warned that if world leaders waited until 2020 to take action to curb emissions, it would cost the global energy sector an additional $5 trillion to make the reductions required to halt global warming at 2°C.

“The question is not whether we can afford the necessary investments given the current economic climate. The fact is we simply cannot afford to delay,” warned Van der Hoeven.

The IEA’s report was welcomed by the former executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, Yvo de Boer.

“The IEA’s latest report demonstrates that a limited set of policy measures can help bring global temperature rise under control,” said De Boer, who now heads up KPMG’s global climate change and sustainability practice.

“By implementing the recommendations of the report, governments can not only help to prevent run-away temperature rises but can also provide the stability and predictability in climate policy that many businesses are crying out for.”

The IEA report came as the UK government confirmed that it was launching an independent review into maximising the economic benefits of offshore oil and gas production.

"Some 41 billion barrels of oil and gas have already been produced from the UK Continental Shelf (UKCS) and we must maintain our momentum and make the most of the huge opportunity that the UKCS still represents," confirmed a Decc statement.

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