2020 is our last chance to avert climate catastrophe, says energy chief

The International Energy Agency releases its Sustainable Recovery Plan and says governments have a 'once-in-a-lifetime opportunity' to reduce global emissions

Time is running out and the world has a matter of months to avert climate catastrophe, according to the International Energy Agency Chief.

Dr Fatih Birol, IEA executive director, on Thursday announced the agency’s new sustainable recovery plan, a three-year roadmap for governments to repair their pandemic-ravaged economies, create millions of jobs and “make 2019 the definitive peak in global emissions”.

“This year is the last time we have, if we are not to see a carbon rebound,” said IEA executive director, Dr Birol, told The Guardian.

At a press conference, the energy chief said IEA had been determined to have the report ready this month as economies begin to kick-start from the Covid-19 crisis. It is estimated that governments plan to spend $9 trillion globally in economic recovery packages.

Dr Birol said that governments were facing “hugely consequential decisions” and the right energy policies would be crucial for emissions to permanently decline, and achieve net-zero emissions in 2050.

The Special Report on Sustainable Recovery, with input from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), has three key goals: Boosting global economic growth by 1.1% annually; saving or creating 9 million jobs a year; and reducing annual global energy-related greenhouse gas emissions by a total of 4.5bn tonnes in the three-year period.

Following the plan, IEA says, would also bring benefits for human health and well-being. It would lead to a 5% reduction in air pollution emissions, get electricity to 270m people and create clean-cooking solutions for more than 400m in low-income countries.

The plan tackles six sectors – electricity, transport, industry, buildings, fuels and emerging low-carbon technologies.

To achieve its goals, the recovery plan requires global investment of around $1 trillion annually over the next three years. IEA suggests that the amount, representing about 0.7% of current global GDP, would come from both public spending and private finance.

“Governments have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reboot their economies and bring a wave of new employment opportunities while accelerating the shift to a more resilient and cleaner energy future,” said Dr Birol.

“The plan is not intended to tell governments what they must do. It seeks to show them what they can do.”

Dr Birol said the 2008 financial crisis was a critical lesson. Initially there had been a decline in emissions but by 2010, as recovery efforts ramped up, global emissions soared to historic highs.

“What we wanted to do with this report is to avoid that rebound and put the world on a sustainable energy track,” he said.

The energy leader said that IEA was “hopeful” there would not be a repeat and in 2020, the world was working with three major competitive advantages.

The price of clean energy tech is much lower - solar, for example, now costs one-fifth of what it was 12 years ago. And with 2020's steep emissions declines, governments have a building block on which they could make significant change. Dr Birol added that governments were also now taking climate challenges more seriously.

In a statement to The Independent, Dr Alison Doig, International Lead at the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU), said: “The IEA makes clear that a sustainable global recovery from Covid-19 is desirable, achievable and affordable, boosting economic growth, creating millions of jobs in areas such as energy efficiency and putting emissions into decline.

“Perhaps the most startling line is that if governments take this path, they can make 2020 the year when the world starts beating climate change as well as coronavirus, with emissions never again rising above 2019 levels and setting a new course to deliver the goals of the Paris Agreement.”

IEA analysis found that Covid-19 had a "huge impact" on the energy sector. In 2019, the electricity, oil, gas, coal and biofuels industries directly employed 40m workers around the world.

Dr Birol acknowledged that “unemployment will be a major problem” with three million jobs lost in the energy sector alone and the same number again at risk from the pandemic.

The agency's strategy would see millions of new jobs in retrofitting buildings to improve energy efficiency and grids and renewables in the electricity sector.

Employment would also come from energy-efficiency roles in manufacturing, food and textiles along with low-carbon transport infrastructure and electric vehicles.

Investment in global energy is forecast to plummet 20% this year, putting both energy security and clean energy transitions at risk.

IEA says their plan will make the sector more resilient and prepare countries for future crises by improving electricity grids, upgrading hydropower facilities and extending the lifetimes of nuclear power plants, while integrating large shares of renewables like wind and solar.

Dr Birol said that although the shift would greatly impact the oil industry "no company will be unaffected by clean energy transitions sooner or later".

He did not agree that the shift to working from home during the coronavirus will have a significant impact.

“Teleconferencing alone will not help us reach our energy and climate goals. It can make a small dent,” he said. “Only the right government policies can do that.”

On 9 July, IEA is hosting a clean energy transition summit with 40 government ministers from around the world, accounting for 80 per cent of global energy use, along with industry CEOs, investors and other public and private sector leaders. Both China and the US, the world's large CO2 emitters, have agreed to have energy ministers take part.

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