Editor’s Note: Fatih Birol is executive director of the International Energy Agency. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
The enthusiasm generated in Paris less than five years ago around global climate action has given way to frustration for many people. The gap between our current path and the road we need to take for a secure and sustainable future is widening instead of shrinking.
We have to achieve deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, but we’ll never get there unless we take on and reach ambitious goals. The world must step up action — and it must do so urgently.
At the heart of the matter is energy, which is responsible for more than two-thirds of global greenhouse gas emissions. To put the world firmly on track to meet international climate goals, the industry and governments need to take action to make sure those emissions peak as soon as possible and then work hard toward putting them into steep decline.
Recent IEA analysis shows that we can cut energy-related carbon dioxide emissions by a third by 2030 through swift, smart policies from governments that give companies and investors the incentives and clarity they need to accelerate clean energy transitions. For energy companies, this means moving quickly to reduce emissions from their own operations while developing the clean energy technologies that can transform global energy. It won’t be simple to navigate the changes this will bring for policy-making and business models, but I’m optimistic we can all rise to this challenge.
Progress over the past 10 years has laid the foundations to make great headway this decade. Advances in technology and policies have made cleaner energy solutions like wind turbines, solar panels, lithium-ion batteries and LED lighting familiar parts of our world — and they are preventing emissions from spiraling off the charts. But more needs to be done.
There are reasons to be optimistic:
We already have the tools to do this
Achieving a near-term peak in emissions, which the Paris Agreement called for, will require all available energy technologies. It will mean greater use of renewable energy and other low-carbon solutions for generating electricity; accelerating improvements in energy efficiency in industry, homes and transport; reducing emissions from oil and gas companies’ operations; and bolstering the use of nuclear power, a clean energy source, in those countries that have kept that option open.
We know how to put these technologies into action
Countries such as Denmark have shown that renewable energy technologies can be deployed widely and provide a significant portion of electricity supply. India and others have demonstrated that you can quickly introduce energy-efficient devices like LED lamps on a massive scale. The IEA is helping to make sure everyone can benefit from the experiences of such pioneers.
Governments and companies have the means to make this happen
Strong political backing is needed for promising technologies to secure greater investment and become more competitive. By providing clear policies and long-term plans, governments can reduce the uncertainty that is holding back investors and businesses from channeling far more money into sectors like renewables.
All energy companies will be affected by clean energy transitions, which offer a huge business opportunity. Established industry players have the deep pockets and the large-scale engineering expertise to boost their investments in and use of low-carbon technologies — such as carbon capture, hydrogen and offshore wind — and expand them around the world. This is also a tremendous chance to create jobs in emerging industries and foster new waves of innovation. Of course, we must also make sure that the social impact of clean energy transitions is managed in a fair and just manner, particularly for the most vulnerable.
More Tech & Innovation Perspectives
Neither continuing with business as usual nor giving up out of despair is a viable option. Bold climate action will require a new kind of political approach. The situation calls for a grand coalition encompassing governments, investors, companies and everyone else who is genuinely committed to taking concrete measures to reduce global emissions.
Governments, which one way or another drive more than 70% of global energy investments, need to lead our clean energy transitions. Energy companies, too, must do more to accelerate the shift to cleaner fuels and technologies. This can be the decade when, together, we win the key battle in the climate fight by putting emissions on a sharp downward trajectory without jeopardizing energy security or economic growth.