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Joining forces against climate change

The International Energy Agency sets out a pathway towards a sustainable future.

by Mike Scott
02 September 2020
6 min read
by Mike Scott
02 September 2020
6 min read

The United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) cover the entire global economy, but there are three goals that are most relevant for the energy sector —to reduce the serious health impacts of air pollution, to provide affordable and clean energy and to tackle climate change by 2030.

The world is currently set to miss all these goals but failure is not inevitable.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) has developed three scenarios which address these SDG targets and the requirements of the Paris Agreement on climate change, which calls on governments to keep average temperature rises from pre-industrial times to well below 2 °C.

Under the above scenarios, emissions will reach a peak as soon as possible and then start to fall. According to the IEA, “Energy demand [will rise] by 1.3% each year to 2040, with increasing demand for energy services unrestrained by further efforts to improve efficiency." This “would result in a relentless upward march in energy-related emissions, as well as growing strains on almost all aspects of energy security."

If governments implement the policies and targets they have set out, energy demand will still rise by 1% per year to 2040: “Low-carbon sources, led by solar photovoltaics (PV), supply more than half of this growth, and natural gas, boosted by rising trade in liquefied natural gas, accounts for another third. Oil demand flattens out in the 2030s, and coal use edges lower. Some parts of the energy sector, led by electricity, undergo rapid transformations."

“The momentum behind clean energy technologies is not enough to offset the effects of an expanding global economy and growing population. The rise in emissions slows but, with no peak before 2040, the world falls far short of shared sustainability goals."

The roads leading to the change

The SDS provides a pathway for the world to meet its Paris Agreement sustainable energy goals in full, but it makes clear that it will require “rapid and widespread changes across all parts of the energy system."

Some observers say the best chance we have is to develop net negative technologies that actually remove GHGs from the atmosphere, such as carbon capture and storage and direct air capture. However, the IEA stresses that we should not rely on these because they remain a long way from being rolled out at scale.

Instead, the focus should be on moving away from fossil fuels, particularly coal, and investing more in existing technologies such as renewable energy, energy efficiency and storage, electrification of the transport sector and measures such as the provision of clean cooking facilities.

Such moves are starting to gather pace as cost reductions in renewables and advances in digital technologies “open huge opportunities for energy transitions," World Energy Outlook the points out.  
But to meet the Paris targets, almost all growth in electricity generation to 2040 will have to come from wind and solar PV capacity. This will increase the need for flexible power systems that are able to react quickly to fluctuating energy production due to the intermittency of wind and sunshine levels. That will require much greater levels of energy storage for both electric and heat energy.

Overlapping challenges

These changes to the energy system will not only help to tackle climate change, but other energy-related SDG goals as well. By reducing air pollution, and therefore improving health at the same time, these changes may increase access to energy.

As the COVID-19 pandemic seems to initiate to withdraw —at least in Europe and in the Far East— it has become clear there is no conflict between tackling climate change, reducing poverty and increasing health outcomes. Indeed, the three issues are deeply interconnected, as highlighted by the revelation that those suffering from respiratory diseases, often caused or exacerbated by air pollution, are thought to be more vulnerable to the new novel coronavirus.

Climate change, in addition to creating its own problems, acts as a threat multiplier for challenges such as poverty and health, by reducing economic growth in sectors from agriculture and tourism to manufacturing, and increasing the potential spread of diseases. To deal with these issues, governments need to introduce policies to create jobs, boost economic growth and help improve the health of their citizens.

Increasing the use of clean energy may help in this goal by creating jobs, improving air quality and giving more people access to energy.

In the run-up to the COP26 (UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties), which has been rescheduled to November 2021, all countries are being called upon to tighten their nationally determined contributions. If they do so, that could provide the impetus to make the SDS a reality.

Italian policy progress

One example of such policies comes from Italy, which the IEA says “has made strong progress in the development of energy policy."

As one of the co-hosts of the COP26, Italy has successfully grown its renewables sector and integrated large volumes of clean power into its grid.

Italy's National Energy Strategy targets “a 28% share of renewables in total energy consumption by 2030, and a 55% share of renewables in electricity consumption by 2030; strengthening supply security; narrowing the energy price gap; furthering sustainable public mobility and eco-friendly fuels; and phasing out the use of coal in electricity generation by 2025," according to DNV GL.

It is also a world leader in smart meter infrastructure. One reason for this is the liberalization of its energy market and the development of the relevant infrastructure, although further reforms are necessary, the IEA says.

Italy has tax deductions and a guaranteed minimum price and priority grid access for renewable energy, and all new and refurbished buildings must integrate renewable energy to provide at least 50% of their energy needs. It also has a fund to support the development of district heating.


The author: Mike Scott

Journalist specializing in environment and business writing for corporate clients, newspapers, magazines and think tanks.