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The IEA's Latest Report May Have Just Saved The World
There is nowhere left to hide - but there is also hope.
Humanity has exhausted almost all its chances to stop a lethal global self-inflicted catastrophe. This isn’t hyperbole, as this was the main message from the IEA’s latest report. In fact, this latest report has taken a far more direct, pragmatic and damning turn compared to the IEA’s past publications, marking a significant shift in the influential organisation’s attitude. It has given big polluters and heel-dragging developed countries nowhere to hide, ensuring upcoming milestone climate summits like Cop28 aren’t greenwashed to uselessness. As such, it may have just saved the world.
The IEA does net-zero roadmap reports and updates them every few years. These look at the state of climate change and our progress towards reducing our impact on the planet, then gives advice to the international community through regular reports on what we must do to advance our progress to ensure we limit climate change to acceptable levels.
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Their last report update was in 2021. This landmark report was the first to state that fossil fuel expansion needed to stop immediately in order to limit global warming by 1.5 degrees Celsius. Moreover, it advised that new unscaled and currently expensive technologies, such as carbon capture, hydrogen and bioenergy, were needed to make around half of the emissions’ reduction between now and 2050. In the years since, this report has significantly influenced international and national climate action and legislation. It has spurred massive investments into carbon capture and other unproven technologies, whilst helping to tighten international efforts to limit oil expansion.
But, the updated 2023 report has changed tack quite dramatically. Now, it sees only 35% of emissions cuts coming from unproven technologies like carbon capture, hydrogen and biofuels. Instead, it is placing a much larger emphasis on already existing renewable energy, efficiency measures and decarbonisation of industries. While this might sound like a slight change, it leaves big polluters and oil-dependent nations no room to greenwash their way through net-zero and could dramatically change the course of climate action over the foreseeable future. Let me explain.
Big polluters and oil-dependent countries used the IEA’s 2021 report to avoid decarbonisation. They prioritised carbon capture as a way for them to reach net-zero. You can see this with companies like Chevron and countries like Saudi Arabia, which plan to invest in carbon capture and continue oil extraction and sales well past 2050. However, as my previous article “Can Carbon Capture Save The Oil Industry?” stated, this is both economically and practically impossible as reliable and verifiable carbon capture is expensive and is proving incredibly challenging to scale. This is why the IEA has found that the history of carbon capture “has largely been one of unmet expectations.” They have even found that the carbon capture sites in action today aren’t being used to reach net-zero, and are instead used for greenwashing and allowing oil companies to promote more expansion. As such, the 2023 IEA report has massively scaled back their carbon capture capacity advice from 980 Mt of CO2 by 2050 to just under 400 Mt of CO2. That is a reduction of 40%!
The carbon capture that the IEA still recommends isn’t for offsetting emissions that can be easily reduced through other technologies like renewables. Instead, they are expressly there to help industries that can’t fully decarbonise, such as some heavy industries, to reach net-zero.
Since 2021, renewables and electrification have seen record-breaking growth, and the costs of these technologies have plummeted even further than we thought they would. As such, the IEA is now emphasising these technologies as, by far, the main route to net-zero. This is because they are proven, cost-effective and are already efficiently scaling and replacing older carbon-emitting technologies. They also found that while renewable and electrification growth is at a record high, it is far from the levels needed to reach net-zero by 2050 and limit climate change to 1.5 degrees.
These two significant points close a major loophole in the 2021 report, leaving oil companies and oil-dependent nations no wriggle room to continue their planet-destroying ways. It firmly points the finger at the world’s biggest polluters, giving them no choice but to reduce their emissions and wean themselves off fossil fuels rather than engaging in high-tech greenwashing.
Why is this important?
Well, we are rapidly approaching COP28. This climate summit is poised to be one of the most influential ever. This is because climate change has started to bite over the past few years, and many countries are now painfully aware of the dangers they face. Moreover, this is one of the last chances we have to create an international agreement to phase out fossil fuels before it’s too late. If such an agreement doesn’t happen at Cop28, then massive amounts of future emissions will be locked in with new coal, oil and gas infrastructure expansion, leading to us blowing well past our climate targets.
What’s more worrying is who is heading up this historic summit. Not only is it being hosted in Dubai, a country which intends to use carbon capture to continue its oil production for decades to come, but it is being headed by Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, who is also chief executive of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, which also plans on continued oil extraction past 2050 with the aid of carbon capture. So, there is already a gargantuan precedent for oil sympathy and extensive greenwashing at the summit.
This massive clash of interests means that an international fossil phase-out agreement will be incredibly difficult. But, thanks to the IEA’s updated report, countries in favour of such an act now have the ammunition they need to get such legislation past these oil giants.
This report also had a glimmer of hope. They found that the pathway to limiting climate change to 1.5 degrees Celsius, which would mitigate the vast majority of the damage of climate change, is still open, thanks to the immense progress we have made with clean energy over the past few years. This progress has been so dramatic that the IEA is now predicting that fossil fuel demand will peak before 2030! However, this hope did come with a caveat. You see, developing countries need to reach net-zero early, by 2045 at the latest, to limit climate change to 1.5 degrees. This demonstrates just how slow climate action has been compared to where it needed to be, and will turbocharge the talks at Cop28.
So, that’s how the IEA’s latest report could save the world. By recognising the damage of greenwashing and the brilliant boom of renewables, they have been able to come up with a far more watertight and pragmatic road map to saving the planet and ourselves from climate doom. All we can now do is hope that this strengthens calls to action at Cop28 and leads to the massive and cohesive international efforts to banish fossil fuels that are needed despite the clash of interests at the summit.
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