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Pure energy flows, but not fast enough to solve global warming

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WASHINGTON – Over the next two decades, the world’s energy system will undergo a huge transformation. Wind and solar power are ready to become dominant energies. China’s once relentless appetite for coal is turned off. The amount of oil we use to burn our cars can peak and decrease.

But there is a catch: The Global Marching Against Clean Energy is still not fast enough to avoid dangerous global warming, at least not unless governments add powerful new policy measures to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

It is the conclusion of the International Energy Agency, which published its annual World Energy Outlook, a 661-sided report that predicts global energy trends by 2040. These forecasts are particularly difficult right now because the world’s energy markets, as is usually

here, are some of the report’s main themes:

Wind and sun give gains

Around the world, electricity supplies experience its most dramatic transformation since its creation more than a century ago, the report says. One major factor is the rapid growth of wind power and solar energy.

Over the last five years, the average cost of solar energy has decreased by 65 percent and the cost of wind power on land has decreased by 15 percent. The Energy Agency predicts that prices will continue to twinkle as technology improves and governments recalculate subsidies. Solar facilities are well-placed to compete for new crops almost everywhere.

The Agency sees renewable energy that supplies 40 percent of the world’s electricity year 2040, up from 25 percent today. Even this forecast may be conservative: Earlier, the agency has underestimated the rate of wind and solar power.

“Our solar expectations are about 20 percent higher than last year, both due to new policies in China and India and because costs are going down so fast,” says Fatih Birol, Executive Vice President of the Agency.

However, the report warns that many countries will need to retool their networks to handle production from wind and solar power plants that run intermittently. This will involve reviewing rules for how the electricity market works, relying on batteries and gasworks for grid flexibility and exploration of new tools like hydrogen storage.

Colonial bomb days are over

For decades, developing countries like China and India have turned to coal as the cheapest, easiest way to drive their economies and lift themselves from poverty. It is a major reason that carbon dioxide emissions have risen.

Even when the world puts hundreds of millions of new cars on the road, we use increasingly less oil to burn them. The report projects that global oil use for cars will be peaked in the mid-2020s, as the countries will manage their fuel economy standards and use more electric vehicles.

This does not mean that total oil use will decrease. Only if a quarter of the world’s oil is used to burn passenger cars. The rest is used to drive goods trucks, ships and aircraft; for heating; and to make plastic and other petrochemicals.

These sectors have not seen the same improvements in efficiency. As a result, the agency expects the global oil demand to continue to rise until 2040, led by developing countries.

Climate goals remain out of reach

Even with the impressive latest profits for renewable energy, the world is still far from solving global warming. Global carbon dioxide emissions rose 1.6 percent last year and are about to climb again this year . The report shows that emissions will continue to grow slowly until 2040.

One reason: carbonless sources like wind power, solar and nuclear power do not grow fast enough to keep up with the rising global energy needs, especially in places like India and Southeast Asia. This means that the use of fossil fuels continues to grow to fill the gap.

In order for this to change, nations must implement a comprehensive new policy, such as investing in energy efficiency to slow demand, prevent methane leakage from oil and gas operations, and develop carbon capture technology for existing fossil power plants and cement factories.

Governments will play a key role: The report notes that the world invests 2 trillion dollars annually in energy infrastructure, and 70 percent of it is governed by state-owned companies or regulators. “It says that our energy party will be heavily dependent on government decisions over the next two decades,” says Birol.

For more news on climate and environment, follow @NYTClimate on Twitter .


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