IEA Report On Climate Change Sees Bleak Future Without Policy Shifts, More Nuclear Power

The International Energy Agency suggested Tuesday that global governments were guiding humanity toward a bleak future of wanton pollution, fossil-fuel dependency and high energy prices. Without bold policy shifts, including a renewed embrace of nuclear power, the intergovernmental group said in its latest annual energy outlook that the world's economies are in danger of yoking themselves to a high-carbon infrastructure, making it far more difficult -- and expensive -- to meet energy security goals.

In an echo of earlier warnings from the United Nations, the IEA, which serves to advise 28 industrialized nations on energy markets and policy, also suggested that the window of opportunity is fast closing to curb greenhouse gas emissions enough to limit long-term global average temperature increases to 2-degrees Celsius, the target informally agreed to at the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009.

Many scientists believe the 2-degree goal is crucial for preventing runaway and irreversible impacts of climate change.

"Governments need to introduce stronger measures to drive investment in efficient and low-carbon technologies," said IEA's executive director, Maria van der Hoeven, in a prepared statement. "The Fukushima nuclear accident, the turmoil in parts of the Middle East and North Africa and a sharp rebound in energy demand in 2010, which pushed CO2 emissions to a record high, highlight the urgency and the scale of the challenge."

The world's existing CO2-belching power plants and industries already account for 80 percent of the "budget" of emissions that would be necessary to keep temperatures from rising beyond the 2-degree Celsius goal, the agency found. If nothing changes, that figure will hit 90 percent by 2017, leaving little room to maneuver and ensuring a much warmer world.

"This would be a catastrophe for the planet," said Fatih Birol, the IEA's chief economist, in a telephone interview. Birol said an internationally binding agreement on carbon reductions was imperative to averting such an outcome. "Unfortunately, it looks like that is unlikely, because many countries have different preoccupations," he said.

In particular, the agency warned that the current political aversion to new nuclear power development, which arose in the wake of the post-tsunami meltdown at a multi-reactor nuclear facility in Japan this spring, would drive further dependence on fossil fuels, pushing up prices and foiling efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions. "Our analysis showed that a lower nuclear future would be bad news for energy security," Birol said.

Amid expanding energy demand, a lack of nuclear power would necessarily be met in part by more carbon-intensive sources like coal and natural gas, he added, and while increasing support for renewables and energy efficiency is important, such measures will ultimately prove insufficient, given the climate imperatives facing the planet.

"Renewables cannot make it alone," he said. "It is not enough."

Several countries have been rethinking their reliance on nuclear power in the wake of the meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear facility. Germany has shuttered more than a dozen of its nuclear power plants, and other countries, including the U.S., have been reassessing nuclear expansion plans. In a worst-case scenario imagined by the IEA, industrialized nations would build no new nuclear plants and developing nations would develop only half the number of nuclear facilities currently on the drawing board. In such a scenario, the organization reported, the increase in global coal demand would be roughly double Australia's current steam coal exports. The rise in gas demand, the report found, would be "equivalent to two-thirds of Russia's current natural gas exports."

While many of the conclusions drawn by the IEA, particularly those relating to renewable power development and conservation, dovetail with positions held by prominent environmental and clean-energy advocacy groups, its position on nuclear power drew quick condemnations.

"The IEA's report reflects what Greenpeace has been saying for years -- the increase in average global temperature must be kept to 2-degrees Celsius," said the senior energy campaigner for Greenpeace International, Sven Teske, in an emailed statement. Teske said he also welcomed the report's emphasis on renewable power and energy efficiency.

"However," he added, "the IEA is once again putting politics ahead of science by suggesting that a reduction in nuclear power will lead to higher energy costs and emissions -- the opposite is the case. A combination of energy efficiency and renewables would be the way forward and could lead to a complete phase-out of nuclear power by 2035, while lowering electricity costs and carbon emissions."

The IEA analysis examined three scenarios: one in which the status quo is maintained; another in which new policies are implemented, albeit cautiously; and a third in which aggressive new efforts toward energy conservation and renewable power development are pursued and global average temperature increases are kept to 2-degrees Celsius or below. The middle scenario, which forms the foundation of the new analysis, would still bring about substantial increases in global fossil fuel use and carbon dioxide emissions, leading to expected temperature increases of more than 3.5-degrees Celsius.

A business-as-usual scenario, in which new policy actions are not pursued, could result in global average temperature increases of 6-degrees Celsius or more over the next several decades.

"The wide difference in outcomes between these three scenarios underlines the critical role of governments to define the objectives and implement the policies necessary to shape our energy future," the IEA report concluded.

To illustrate that point, the researchers noted that under a business-as-usual scenario, estimated coal use would rise by 65 percent by 2035. If modest new policies are implemented, that could be reduced to 25 percent growth over the same period. The most aggressive carbon-reduction scenario would see coal use rise until 2020, and then begin to fall. "The range of projections for coal demand in 2035 across the three scenarios is nearly as large as total world coal demand in 2009," the analysis noted. "The implications of policy and technology choices for the global climate are huge."

The agency estimated that, under the middle scenario, fossil fuels would fall as a share of the global energy mix over the next 25 years, from 81 percent currently to about 75 percent in 2035. The share of renewables over the same time period would grow to 18 percent of the mix, from about 13 percent today. But the growth in renewables will depend in large part on increases in subsidies, which the IEA suggested would need to increase from $64 billion currently to $250 billion in 2035.

Today, global subsidies for fossil fuels total about $409 billion, dwarfing those directed and renewable technologies.

But such policy adjustments are by no means guaranteed, Birol warned. "As each year passes without clear signals to drive investment in clean energy," he said in a statement, "the 'lock-in' of high-carbon infrastructure is making it harder and more expensive to meet our energy security and climate goals."

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly gave Fatih Birol's first name as "Faith."