Despite so much criticism directed at the International Energy Agency (IEA) over the years, the Paris-based intergovernmental organization, which was established in the framework of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development in 1974, refuses to seriously rethink its affinity to fossil fuels and nuclear power – and its timid embrace of renewables.
Take, for example, its most recent Clean Energy Innovation report. It rightly underscores that the global energy transition needs innovation and that this requires government support to make it happen more quickly – hardly radical insights, however, for energy experts tuned into climate change. Indeed, innovation is critical to sink process-related emissions in the cement and steel industries, as it notes, and to develop storage technologies, too.
But the IEA report breaks fundamentally with many renewable energy experts, such as those at International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) and BloombergNEF. For one, it is convinced that 2070 is the earliest possible date for climate neutrality: 20 years beyond the Paris deadline and 40 beyond that which other experts say is necessary to avoid tipping points.
Among the innovation that the IEA deems most critical is in the fields of carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS), industrial-use hydrogen derived, at least in part, from fossil fuels, and nuclear power.
Indeed, it claims that 35% of the cumulative emissions reductions need come from technologies still at the prototype or demonstration phase. And a further 40% depends on technologies not yet commercially deployed on a mass-market scale. “The key technologies the energy sector needs to reach net-zero emissions are known today, but not all of them are ready,” it claims.
Top experts disagree and often vehemently: “Our research shows that we can decarbonize the energy system with the currently available renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies by 2050 entirely,” says Sven Teske, research director at the Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney.
“The technologies that the IEA presents as vital to achieve decarbonisation of the energy system – CCUS and nuclear – are neither required nor cost efficient,” says Teske. “The past 40 years of nuclear disasters, cost over-runs and the lack of any safe nuclear waste storage should finally result in dropping this technology entirely. We don’t need it. We have a variety of reliable renewables. And they are proven to be far more economic and quicker to build.”
This is also the view of Hans-Josef Fell, president of the Berlin-based think tank Energy Watch Group. “The lion’s share of the global energy transition will come from solar and wind power,” says Fell, with help from geothermal sources, hydroelectric power, and bioenergy. The rapid expansion of these energy sources require markets that encourage massive investment encouraged by incentives for demand-oriented marketing of green electricity – exactly the kind that have driven clean energy buildout across Europe and beyond but are now often shunned.
Fell too says innovation is critical, but in the first place in digital control technology that can link sectors and ultimately provide 24/7 system security for 100% renewables. “This kind of innovation can go much faster than the IEA’s very conservative assessments,” he says, pointing to past IEA forecasts that proved wrong. Behind the IEA’s analysis, he argues, are the oil-and-gas and nuclear lobbies that seek to provide scenarios that justify their existence for decades to come.
Even though the IEA has shifted its position over the last ten years – finally accepting that a transition to renewables is inevitable — its persistent conservatism and fossil-fuel friendliness remains cause for concern. It is arguably among the most important global energy agencies and yet its assessments and recommendations often fall way wide of the mark. The question is whether a mere change in leadership, which is in the offing, would be enough to get it on track to help stave off the very worst of climate change.