World?s progress too slow on climate change

Each year, the International Energy Agency puts out a study of which technological advances are needed to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius. The 2012 report is out and the grades are dismal: Aside from a recent boom in wind energy and solar power, the world isn’t making much progress.

The IEA doesn’t just look at recent trends in greenhouse-gas emissions — those can rise and fall with the economy. Instead, it looks at which clean-energy technologies are coming online. If the world wants to avoid a dangerous 2C rise in global temperatures, then we’ll need a certain amount of low-carbon infrastructure in place by 2020, the IEA says. That means a mix of wind turbines, nuclear reactors, energy-efficient cars and buildings, and so on. And, for most of those things, countries are way behind. Here’s a rundown:

• Cleaning up coal plants. The IEA has recommended that countries around the world need to have at least 38 coal plants that capture and store carbon up and running by 2020 in order to stay on pace to meet that 2C climate target. There are no such plants operating. Moreover, the report notes, nearly half of the new coal plants built in 2010 aren’t even up to the latest efficiency standards.

• Solar energy, wind power and other renewables. Here the IEA is more optimistic, noting that solar-panel prices are plummeting, countries are rapidly building hydropower dams and geothermal energy plants, and wind turbines are sprouting up everywhere. Countries are making slower progress on advanced renewables such as concentrated solar power plants and offshore wind turbines. But in the past decade, renewable power has been growing at a 27 percent annual rate, and if the pace continues, renewables should meet the IEA’s expectations.

• Vehicle fuel economy. The IEA estimates that fuel economy needs to improve by an average of 2.7 percent per year by 2030 in order to keep the share of emissions from transportation under control, but cars and trucks are getting more efficient at just a 1.7 percent annual pace. Some countries, such as those in the European Union and the United States, are improving quite steadily. Others such as India are becoming less fuel-efficient, though that’s largely because more people are able to buy vehicles.

• Buildings. The IEA says that improving the energy efficiency of buildings is one of the easiest ways for the world to rein in its carbon emissions, since residential and commercial buildings account for 32 percent of energy use around the world. Although most people know how to insulate better and install efficient lighting, most countries have been slow to adopt stricter building codes, promote solar thermal systems and speed the adoption of energy-efficient appliances.

If the world wanted to make a concerted push to meet the 2C target, the IEA says, all the sectors, from electricity to vehicles to buildings, would have to chip in to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. Right now we’re on track to a balmy 6C of warming in our future. To get down to 2C, many sectors need to contribute.

Renewables is the only sector pulling its weight. According to the IEA, most countries don’t have stable, reliable policies to promote clean-energy technologies. They recommend the usual solutions: a price on fossil fuels, new standards for energy efficiency, and more money for research and development.

The IEA estimates that meeting the 2C target will require $5 trillion in energy investments by 2020. That, in turn, would save $4 trillion in fossil fuel costs. And over the next 40 years, the benefits from energy savings and reduced emissions would keep growing and eventually outweigh the costs. For now, though, the world’s nowhere near that point.

Brad Plumer,