With fewer than 90 days until COP26, the annual United Governments climate change meeting in Glasgow, Scotland this November, nations are under increasing pressure to keep global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius.
The 2015 Paris Agreement called for pledges to keep global warming “well below” 2 degrees Celsius and to pursue efforts to keep it below 1.5 degrees Celsius.
Since then, breakthroughs in climate science have revealed that the 2 degree Celsius objective is insufficient to avoid the worst effects of climate change, reinforcing the need for a revised 1.5 degree Celsius aim.
Temperatures have already risen by 1.2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels, leading to disastrous floods, fires, and droughts, as seen by the daily news.
Every degree of warming beyond 1.5 degrees C will have more damaging and costly consequences, especially for the most vulnerable populations and countries in low- and small-income countries.
Now it’s up to the International Energy Agency (IEA), an intergovernmental organization that shapes global energy policy, to communicate this to its member governments, businesses, and markets by focusing its widely-read annual publication, the World Energy Outlook, on a 1.5 degrees C–consistent pathway (WEO).
The International Energy Agency (IEA), which was founded in 1974 in the midst of a brutal oil crisis, has grown into a powerful source of data and market analysis with a broader purpose to provide cheap, dependable, and clean energy.
Energy is the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for approximately two-thirds of total emissions.
Rapidly reducing energy emissions is therefore critical to keeping global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius.
Even though the IEA does not advocate a certain degree of tolerable warming.
the WEO scenarios provide critical roadmaps for political and commercial decisions by laying out the possibility of attaining various policy objectives.
In 2018, a sobering report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the United Nations body in charge of assessing climate change science, revealed that keeping warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius would necessitate social and economic changes on a scale and speed never seen before in history.
Now it’s just a matter of figuring out how to get there.
According to the most recent scientific findings, the time for keeping 1.5 alive and avoiding additional disastrous consequences is rapidly narrowing.
This is where the IEA’s forthcoming WEO, which has been dubbed a “Google map” for global energy markets, might be crucial—if it is aligned with 1.5 degrees Celsius.
Previous WEOs included several scenarios, with the core “Stated Energy Policies Scenario” (STEPS)—the reference case—getting the most attention.
STEPS highlights the effects of taking no more climate action: warming of between 2.7 and 3 degrees Celsius.
As the IEA points out, demonstrating the inadequacy of current policy has significance. However, governments, financial experts, companies, and the media should exercise caution when using the reference example as the default decision-making guidance.
The IEA has been out of step with the rate of technological development and scientific understanding in other ways as well, such as failing to align the main WEO scenario with 1.5 degrees C.
The IEA’s modeling has been challenged by both the scientific community and civil society for its underlying bias in favor of the fossil fuel-based status quo.
Furthermore, the organization grossly underestimates the growth of renewables, putting renewable energy transitions in danger.
The #FixtheWEO movement also demands the central scenario to be updated to account for the necessity of remaining below 1.5 degrees Celsius.
Although the IEA is showing indications of progress, worldwide agreement on 1.5 degrees Celsius as the de facto objective is far from certain.
The IEA issued its first comprehensive assessment on how to transition to a net-zero energy system by 2050 and offer the world a chance of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius in May, at the request of the United Kingdom’s COP leadership.
This signaled a significant shift in the IEA’s message.
The IEA determined that there is “no need for investment in additional fossil fuel supplies,” rather than pushing for increased oil and gas investment.
However, nations like Japan, Brazil, and Australia have questioned the findings, claiming that they contradict their plans for fossil fuel growth.
But, in the run-up to COP26, highlighting the gaps between governments’ Paris Agreement promises and policy implementation is precisely what the world needs.
Because the WEO is used by policymakers and investors to steer billions of dollars in energy investment, the scenarios it prioritizes may become a self-fulfilling prophecy, either pointing to a 1.5 degrees C future or a deepening climate disaster.
60 leaders from policy, investment, academia, and civil society sent an open letter to Fatih Birol, the IEA’s executive director, arguing that the reference case “represents an insufficient degree and speed of reform” and “tracks a perilous route.”
Former UNFCCC executive secretary Christiana Figueres joined in, calling a 1.5 degrees C–aligned WEO a “golden key” to “open the door to policy formulation and capital deployment.”
Holding global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius will be difficult economically and technically, but the alternative is a less livable Earth.
With global energy growth exceeding decarbonization, a sustainable future will need a leading blueprint that promotes policy consistency with the IPCC 1.5 degree C guidelines and directs investment toward a stable climate.
Placing a 1.5 degrees C-centered scenario at the core of the WEO would simulate the market routes required for nations, corporations, and communities to work together to achieve this objective.
The IEA is well-positioned to emphasize this route in the WEO 2021, which may be a turning moment for this critical decade, as negotiators prepare to define the future of climate action at COP26.
the author is Rebecca M. Peters is a Transatlantic Academy Fellow in Chatham House’s Energy, Environment and Resources Program.