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An influential global voice warns of runaway emissions

Few international figures have been as consistent in warning about the threat posed by global warming as economist Fatih Birol, of the International Energy Agency. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Birol explains why the situation is worsening and what needs to be done to significantly slow emissions.

Fatih Birol is a man watching a clock — the clock that ticks off the years in which little is done to slow emissions of planet-warming greenhouse gases. As chief economist of the authoritative International Energy Agency, Birol has a bully pulpit, and he has used it to consistently warn that time is running out if the global community hopes to avert potentially catastrophic climate change.

Fatih Birol, IEAFatih Birol, IEAIn an interview with Yale Environment 360 senior editor Fen Montaigne, Birol discusses why the emissions situation is getting worse rather than better, why an overreliance on abundant natural gas reserves is a dangerous strategy, and why the global community must take action in the next several years if it hopes to avert temperature increases that could range as high as 6 degrees Celsius (11 degrees Fahrenheit), way past the 2 degrees C increase that climate scientists say is a prudent upper limit.

“Individual efforts of countries or sectors will not bring us to 2 degrees,” said Birol. “And if the trends continue like this, we can very soon kiss goodbye to a 2-degree trajectory.”

Yale Environment 360: You have been a leading voice warning the world community that we are not doing nearly enough to rein in climate change. How would you assess the situation today?

Fatih Birol: The situation today is, I could say, worse than ever. And I have at least three reasons why I believe so. One is I see the political momentum is not there. And climate change is sliding down in the agenda of many governments, including the governments that have been the champions of fighting against climate change and trying to put policies in place.

The second reason why I think the situation is not bright at all is that carbon dioxide emissions are increasing each year; in 2011 we saw a 1-gigaton increase, which brings us very close to a lock-in of our energy system situation, and it will be almost impossible to reverse the trends after 2017 because our energy system — power plants, the industry sector, the transportation sector — will be locked into the capital investments in a way that they will use fossil fuel energies.

And the third one is that at the end of last year at the United Nations COP meeting in Durban all countries in the world for the first time signed a protocol that they are going to take steps to limit the temperature increase to 2 degrees Celsius. This has been celebrated as a major step. It definitely has political significance, but it was not followed by concrete policy steps. When I look at the investment data, no energy investor changed its behavior as a result of the agreement. So the investments — which would have implications for many years to come in terms of building power plants, industrial facilities, and others — will be with us for many years to come.

As a result of these three major reasons, I do not feel very optimistic that we will be able to reach the 2-degree trajectory, but I will be extremely happy if I am wrong.

e360: You have also mentioned recently two other developments that concern you as regards slowing global warming. The first is the move away from nuclear power in countries such as Germany and Japan in the wake of Fukushima. Do you think that the world community can prevent serious climate change without using nuclear power?

Birol: When I look at the current energy context and the political momentum, the answer is very clear. Absolutely not.

e360: So you are a proponent of an aggressive and safe expansion of nuclear power?

Birol: Definitely so. I know that nuclear power has its own challenges. But it is the only technology that generates electricity in bulk terms and without emitting CO2.

Look at Japan, for example. After Japan did a shutdown after Fukushima of their nuclear power plants, suddenly Japanese emissions in 2011 increased by 2.4 percent, a spectacular increase, while in all the other developed countries, such as the U.S. and Europe, the emissions declined. Japan was the only major developed country where the emissions increased, exclusively as a result of the shutdown of nuclear power plants. They have been replaced in many cases by natural gas. Natural gas has definitely less emissions than coal, but it is not completely innocent. It does emit CO2, so as we see in the Japanese case, if more and more nuclear power plants are shut down, reaching the 2-degree target would be completely out of reach.

e360: You mentioned natural gas, and I know a second concern of yours is the real boom in unconventional natural gas development, particularly fracking, which is giving us cheap and abundant gas. If this boom continues, what impact will that have on the development of renewable energy resources?

Birol: There is definitely an unconventional gas boom in the U.S. and in Canada, Australia. And I expect this to happen in China very soon. Because the Chinese government has a very strong plan, in their 12th Five-Year Plan, to increase the share of gas in their energy mix. Elsewhere in the world, many countries have about 25 percent share of gas in their energy mix, and in China it is only 4 percent. And coal is 67 percent. So in order to have more diversification, and lessen local pollution issues, China is going to push the use of shale gas. So there will be more and more gas coming. And when gas replaces coal, this is definitely a good thing to reduce CO2 emissions, as we have seen in the United States. Recently, in the last five years, we have seen a substantial decline in U.S. CO2 emissions mainly as a result of a.) replacing coal, and b.) new efficiency standards in the transportation sectors for the vehicles. So this was good.

However, there are two issues. One, shale gas extraction should be done in the proper way. We have recently released a report which we called “Golden Rules for a Golden Age of Gas.” Because doing the extraction process of shale gas, if it is not done properly, there will be methane coming to the atmosphere. And this is another important, dangerous greenhouse gas, which is a very potent one. So therefore, the suggestion is that the operators, the companies, as suggested by us, should target methane venting and minimize the flaming. This is one issue.

The second one is on renewables. The growth of renewable energy today — wind, solar, biomass — is mainly driven by government support. And I hope that governments will continue to support renewables and in some cases gas can be complementary to renewables. We have seen this in the U.S. In the last six years, electricity generated by natural gas in the U.S. increased around 300 terawatt-hours and at the same time renewables increased by about 100 terawatt-hours, which was a doubling from five years ago. So they can both go together, but governments have to be very careful. They shouldn’t be misled with cheap gas prices and reduce their support to renewables.

Of course there are examples to cut the support if it doesn’t make sense. But overall, I think that supporting renewables is very important as the climate changes. Because gas alone will never, ever bring us to a 2-degree trajectory unless it is supported by renewables, energy efficiency, and carbon capture and storage.

e360: You are painting a picture of a global economy that just keeps marching along, paying really no attention to the warnings that you and others have given. For example, that we could face a 6-degree C sea temperature increase...

Birol: Yes.

A surge in gas and oil drilling in the U.S. is helping drive the economic recovery and is enhancing energy security. But as the situation in Ohio shows, Keith Schneider writes, cheaper energy prices and the focus on fossil fuels has been bad news for the renewable energy industry.

e360: I take it you believe that without strong government action, internationally and on a national level, we are never going to meet the targets that we need to meet. That just letting the market operate will not bring us where we need to be.

Birol: Definitely not. Many governments are making very good efforts. Technology is helping in many cases, such as the substitution of shale gas for coal. These are very good steps. But the order of magnitude of the challenge is so big we need collective action. And action should come mainly from the key emitting countries, such as China, the United States, Europe, Japan, India, and others. And this can only happen if there is a government move. And the ideal type of this government move is an international, legally binding agreement. This would definitely help. Otherwise, the individual efforts of the countries or sectors will not bring us to 2 degrees. And if the trends continue like this, we can very soon kiss goodbye to a 2-degree trajectory.

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