The push for clean energy has stalled

Apr 17, 2013 | Updated Jun 16, 2013

The drive to clean up the world's energy system has stalled: While energy is becoming less carbon-intensive in some sectors and regions, the story of the last 20 years is, on the whole, one of inertia. Despite much talk by world leaders, and despite a boom in renewable energy over the last decade, the average unit of energy produced today is basically as dirty as it was 20 years ago.

As world temperatures creep higher due to ever-increasing emissions of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide - two thirds of which come from the energy sector - the overall lack of progress should serve as a wake-up call. We cannot afford another 20 years of listlessness. We need a rapid expansion in low-carbon energy technologies if we are to avoid a potentially catastrophic warming of the planet but we must also accelerate the shift away from dirtier fossil fuels.

These are the warnings the International Energy Agency will deliver this week in New Delhi at the Clean Energy Ministerial, a meeting of ministers representing countries responsible for 80 percent of global greenhouse-gas emissions.

As part of its annual progress report for the ministers, the IEA is introducing a new gauge that not only measures the cleanliness of the global energy supply but also tracks its evolution over the last several decades.

This instrument, the Energy Sector Carbon Intensity Index (ESCII), shows how much carbon dioxide is emitted, on average, to provide a given unit of energy. The ESCII stood at 2.39 tonnes of CO2 per tonne of oil equivalent (tCO2/toe) in 1990, and had barely moved by 2010, holding at 2.37 tCO2/toe.

Optimists will note that the carbon intensity of our energy supply has not increased during those 20 years, and but that ignores a key point: We now consume about 50 percent more energy than we did in 1990, thanks to rapid growth among emerging economies. The carbon intensity of the energy supply has been static while energy demand continues to grow, and so carbon dioxide emissions hit new records each year.

The current level of carbon intensity is not consistent with the stated goal of limiting the rise in global temperatures to 2 degrees C. On the contrary: Were we to continue to emit the same level of carbon dioxide for every unit of energy produced for the next several decades and energy demand were to continue to grow unabated, our planet would be on track to warm by well over 4 degrees C, with potentially devastating impacts.

Clearly, the global energy system is on an unsustainable path, although we are starting to see promising signs that could bring change. Energy from wind and solar has shifted from being a luxury for wealthy countries to being a competitive reality - albeit in limited applications - around the world. Several regions and countries stepped up industrial energy and emissions-reduction policies last year, while governments implemented several important policy measures to promote energy-efficient buildings and appliances. And global electric-car sales more than doubled in 2012, passing 100,000.

These are valuable steps, but much more is needed to address the root cause of the inertia: the fossil-fuel infrastructure that comprises most of the world's energy system. Growth of coal-fired power is actually outpacing the increase in generation from non-fossil energy sources, and the projected level of coal demand growth is consistent with an increase of global temperatures of well above 6 degrees C. Meanwhile, carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies - essential in a world that continues to rely heavily on fossil fuels - are lagging: There are still no large-scale integrated CCS projects in the power sector, and few in industry.

Policy action can provide the crucial difference between real progress and another 20 years of status quo. Among the IEA's recommended actions for governments are: make joint, actionable and monitored commitments on clean energy deployment; set clear and ambitious clean-energy technology goals, underpinned by stringent, credible policies; phase out direct and indirect fossil-fuel subsidies, which encourage wasteful consumption of energy; reflect the true cost of energy in consumer prices, including through carbon pricing; and unleash the potential of energy efficiency via tighter standards and stronger economic incentives.

The CEM governments represent 4.1 billion people and three-quarters of global GDP. Together, they have the power to set the clean-energy transition in motion, and now it is time for them to use it.

Maria van der Hoeven is Executive Director of the International Energy Agency