The International Energy Agency’s annual World Energy Outlook (WEO) is pushing the world toward dangerous levels of climate change, Oil Change International Senior Adviser Greg Muttitt charges, in a blog post published during this year’s United Nations climate change conference in Bonn.
“The IEA seems not to have noticed the Paris Agreement of 2015,” he writes. “Not only does its main New Policies Scenario fail to incorporate individual governments’ pledges, its secondary climate scenario does not reflect their collective long-term goals (although that is its stated purpose).”
The IEA always insists its modelling delivers projections, not predictions. But “governments and investors routinely look to the WEO when they make decisions, using it as their guide to the future,” Muttitt notes. “So power plants, pipelines, and other infrastructure get built based on what the IEA says future demand will be. These then lock in oil, gas, and coal use and production for 30 to 50 years: once the capital is sunk, alternative sources cannot compete. The result is the creation of the very future the IEA has described: a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
He explains that “every year, the WEO maps out the future of energy, focused on a future where governments implement specific policies they have already planned, and no more: the so-called New Policies Scenario.”
Astonishingly, two years after the Paris conference, that core scenario still leaves out the carbon-cutting commitments that countries enshrined in their Nationally Determined Contributions under the landmark global deal, acknowledging only that “many countries make progress towards the achievement of their NDCs”.
The Outlook does include two other modelled futures—a Current Policies Scenario in which governments do (even) less to drive the post-carbon transition, and a Sustainable Development Scenario that is “supposedly aligned with governments’ long-term goals on climate, energy access, and air pollution,” Muttitt says. “But these two scenarios are presented as secondary. The vast majority of the WEO’s narrative, data projections, and headlines focus on the New Policies Scenario, so unsurprisingly energy decision-makers take that as the prediction of future demand. The WEO is thus a very powerful tool in shaping our energy system.”
As recently as last year, Muttitt notes, the IEA’s climate-goals target was its 450 Scenario, first published in 2009, which is intended to be consistent with a 50% chance of limiting global warming to 2.0°C. “Since then, new scientific findings indicated that, even at 2.0°C, vulnerable countries in particular would face severe dangers. This is why the Paris agreement includes more rigorous goals of staying well below 2.0°C, and pursuing efforts to keep [average warming] to 1.5°C. 2.0°C is no longer seen as a goal, but as ‘an upper limit, a defense line that needs to be stringently defended.’”
Clearly, Muttitt says, “coin toss odds of avoiding severe dangers would not be a sensible way forward.”
So the IEA replaced the 450 Scenario with its new Sustainable Development Scenario, which claims a focus on universal energy access and air pollution reduction, but still misses the opportunity to align with the Paris goals. While the IEA says the SDS is aligned with 1.7 to 1.8°C average global warming, “it achieved this feat without changing its emissions outlook.” Muttitt says IEA staff admit that outlook depends on extensive, likely unrealistic use of negative emissions technology to suck carbon out of the atmosphere.
“It means that we are getting a misleading picture of what climate action requires,” he notes, and “even decision-makers who consciously pick out the climate scenario as their guide are falling far short of the Paris goals. Governments commonly hold up the IEA’s climate scenario as a marker of ambition, and investors as a marker of risk. By understating the pace of transition that is needed, the Sustainable Development Scenario is downplaying ambition and amplifying risk.”
Muttitt attributes the disconnects in the WEO to the IEA’s close relationship with the global fossil industry.
“When ministers of [IEA] member governments held their two-yearly meeting, they were joined by the IEA’s Energy Business Council, made up of energy companies, 89% of which produce, consume, service, finance, or lobby for fossil fuels,” he notes. “Given the IEA’s closeness to the fossil fuel industry, perhaps it’s not surprising that its flagship publication serves more to shelter fossil fuels from climate action,” but “this can’t continue. It is time for member governments to demand the IEA helps, not hinders, their efforts to avert dangerous climate change.”