The world is on track to see temperature rises of up to 5.3C, the International Energy Agency warned as it set out swift action governments must take to curb climate change. A series of measures to reduce emissions using existing technology that would have no net economic cost to countries would bring the world much closer to the path it needs to be on by 2020 to keep temperature rises to 2C, the IEA said.
Improving energy efficiency in homes, buildings, industry and transport, limiting the use of inefficient coal fired power stations, reducing methane releases from oil and gas production and removing some fossil fuel subsidies could all help cut emissions. Together the four steps could reduce emissions by 3.1 billion tonnes (3.1 gigatonnes) by 2020 compared to carrying on with "business as usual", the IEA said.
They would provide four-fifths of the emissions reductions needed to put the world on track to avoid "dangerous" climate change by keeping temperature rises to no more than 2C above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century. With negotiations on a new global climate deal not due to be completed until 2015 or come into force before 2020, rapid action now by national governments could buy precious time while international agreement is secured, the IEA argued.
The efforts to tackle emissions from the world's energy sector, which generates two-thirds of global greenhouse gases, involve proven measures rather than developing new technology and would have no overall cost, although the IEA admitted there would be winners and losers. It comes as new estimates for global greenhouse gases show that energy-related carbon dioxide emissions rose 1.4% last year to a new record high, even as climate change slips down the policy agenda.
The IEA also warned that the energy sector cannot avoid addressing climate change, either through investment decisions they must take, or dealing with impacts such as extreme weather threatening infrastructure and rising temperatures pushing up energy demand for air conditioning in cities. IEA executive director Maria van der Hoeven said: "Climate change has quite frankly slipped to the back burner of policy priorities. But the problem is not going away; quite the opposite.
"This report shows that the path we are currently on is more likely to result in a temperature increase of between 3.6C and 5.3C but also finds that much more can be done to tackle energy-sector emissions without jeopardising economic growth, an important concern for many governments."
Half the emissions savings outlined in a new report from the IEA would come from targeted energy efficiency measures in buildings, industry and transport, including energy-saving boilers, lighting, appliances and vehicles. There should be a ban on building inefficient coal-fired power plants and the use of existing dirty power stations should be reduced, the Redrawing the Energy-Climate Map study said.
Policies are also needed to reduce accidental or deliberate release of the potent greenhouse gas methane during oil and gas production, for example through escapes from old infrastructure or through flaring which does not fully burn the gas. And fossil fuel subsidies, which totalled more than £300 billion in 2011, should be partially phased out to prevent them encouraging wasteful and inefficient consumption of energy.
The measures would deliver other benefits such as cost savings on fuel bills for consumers from more efficient appliances and cars, and reducing local air pollution by cutting the use of coal-fired power plants. There was already some good news on tackling climate change, the IEA said. China halved the rate of its annual energy-related emissions increase last year through the use of renewables and energy efficiency and the US cut emissions to 1990s levels by switching from coal to gas for electricity.
But Europe has seen energy-related emissions fall by just 1.4% despite the economic slowdown, as a result of more use of cheaper coal, with UK emissions rising 4.5% last year: a significant increase, the international energy think tank said. IEA chief economist Fatih Birol said: "We are still perfectly on track for a temperature increase of up to 5.3C. This is trend we do not want to see."
Temperature rises of several degrees would have devastating implications, he warned. "People say 2C is becoming impossible, but we think technically it's feasible. Yes the chances to reach 2C are declining but that doesn't mean we should continue with inaction," he said.
Responding to the report, Greg Muttitt at Greenpeace International said: "The climate danger is imminent, but the path to safety is clear and attainable. The question is, will our governments lead us onto that path? "The only reasons not to do so would be delusion by fossil fuel lobbyists' myths or collusion with their paymasters from the oil and coal industry. If governments fail to act, they will be complicit in global suffering and should be held accountable."
Lord Stern, chairman of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at London School of Economics, said: "In this very important analysis, the International Energy Agency has identified four clear, strong and credible policy measures which make sense for both the economy and the climate. "Given that many rich countries are facing sluggish economic growth, governments should recognise the significant benefits of providing consistent policies that incentivise investments in new clean energy technologies instead of old, dirty and inefficient ones."