The rapid expansion of renewable technologies is one of the few bright spots in an otherwise bleak assessment of global progress towards low-carbon energy, the International Energy Agency (IEA) said in an annual report to the Clean Energy Ministerial (CEM) on 17 April.
"The drive to clean up the world's energy system has stalled," IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven told the CEM, which brings together ministers representing countries responsible for four-fifths of global greenhouse-gas emissions. "Despite much talk by world leaders, and despite a boom in renewable energy over the last decade, the average unit of energy produced today is basically as dirty as it was 20 years ago."
To illustrate this inertia, the report, Tracking Clean Energy Progress, introduces the Energy Sector Carbon Intensity Index (ESCII), which shows how much carbon dioxide is emitted, on average, to provide a given unit of energy. The ESCII stood at 2.39 tonnes of CO2 per tonne of oil equivalent (tCO2/toe) in 1990, and had barely moved by 2010, holding at 2.37 tCO2/toe.
"As world temperatures creep higher due to ever-increasing emissions of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide - two thirds of which come from the energy sector - the overall lack of progress should serve as a wake-up call," Ms. Van der Hoeven said. "We cannot afford another 20 years of listlessness. We need a rapid expansion in low-carbon energy technologies if we are to avoid a potentially catastrophic warming of the planet, but we must also accelerate the shift away from dirtier fossil fuels."
While noting that progress remains alarmingly slow for a majority of technologies that could save energy and reduce carbon dioxide emissions consistent with international climate goals, the IEA's reportdid find some recent, positive signs.
From 2011 to 2012, solar photovoltaic and wind technologies grew by an impressive 42% and 19%, respectively, despite ongoing economic and policy turbulence in the sector. Emerging economies are also stepping up efforts in clean energy. Brazil, China and India were among the countries that enhanced policy support for the renewable electricity sector in 2012, for example. Advanced vehicle technologies also progressed well, with hybrid-electric vehicles breaking the 1 million annual sales mark. Electric vehicle sales also more than doubled to reach 110 000 vehicles.
Ms. Van der Hoeven emphasised the ongoing, significant potential of energy efficiency measures. She noted that while there has been progress in improving the fuel economy of passenger vehicles, a wide difference in standards among countries remains, and very few regions currently have comprehensive fuel economy measures in place.
The revolution in shale gas technology has triggered a switch to gas from coal in the United States - important to reducing emissions in the short term - but this is still a regional phenomenon. Coal use expanded elsewhere, particularly in Europe, where coal's share of the power generation mix increased at the expense of natural gas.
In a world that continues to rely heavily on fossil fuels, carbon capture and storage (CCS) deployment is ever more critical. While CCS technologies are mature in many applications, the report stresses that they are unlikely to be deployed commercially until governments make a strong commitment in the form of appropriate policy.
The report gives policy recommendations, technology by technology. At the highest level, it stresses that the true cost of energy must be reflected in consumer prices, through carbon pricing and the phase-out of fossil-fuel subsidies. Technologies like electric vehicles, wind and solar will need support for several years more, but policies should be flexible and transparent. More stringent and broader energy performance standards, building codes and fuel economy standards can drive energy efficiency.
"The CEM governments represent 4.1 billion people and three-quarters of global GDP," Ms. Van der Hoeven said. "Together, they have the power to set the clean energy transition in motion, and now it is time for them to use it."
The report may be downloaded free from the IEA website.