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'Wake-up call' sounded on stalled renewable energy initiatives

April 17, 2013|By Neela Banerjee
  • An electricity-generating wind farm in Palm Springs.
An electricity-generating wind farm in Palm Springs. (Kevork Djansezian / Getty…)

WASHINGTON -- The push to produce more energy from renewable sources has stalled, and “the average unit of energy produced today is basically as dirty as it was 20 years ago,” according to Maria van der Hoeven, executive director of the International Energy Agency, a Paris-based intergovernmental organization that researches the energy sector and holds reserves of oil in case of supply disruptions.

Van der Hoeven’s statement pointed to the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by the world’s power plants, the greatest source of the greenhouse gases driving climate change. To track greenhouse gas output over time, the IEA has developed a new gauge, the Energy Sector Carbon Intensity Index (ESCII), to show how much carbon dioxide is emitted, on average, to provide a particular unit of energy. The index measured 2.37 metric tons of carbon dioxide per metric ton of oil-equivalent in 2010, compared with a ratio of 2.39 metric tons of carbon dioxide per metric ton of oil-equivalent in 1990.

Countries are installing ever-greater amounts of solar and wind energy, the IEA noted, even during tough economic times. But “growth of coal-fired power is actually outpacing the increase in generation from non-fossil energy sources,” van der Hoeven wrote in an op-ed in the Huffington Post.

The United States, for instance, is burning less coal but is exporting more of it to fuel power plants in Asia. Overall, the world consumes about 50% more energy than it did in 1990, mainly due to the growth of emerging economies, van der Hoeven said. And with carbon dioxide emissions the same from each unit of energy over the last 20 years, record amounts of greenhouse gases are pumped into the atmosphere annually, she said.

The vast majority of climate scientists say that the world needs to keep global average temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, above average temperatures in the mid- to late 19th century. At this rate of burning coal and installing renweables, “the world is on track to  have global temperatures rise by 6 degrees Celsius,” or 10.8 degrees Fahrenheit, by the end of this century.

“The overall lack of progress should serve as a wake-up call. We cannot afford another 20 years of listlessness,” van der Hoeven wrots. “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.”

Van der Hoeven made the comments in the run-up to a meeting this week in New Delhi at the Clean Energy Ministerial, a group of ministers representing countries responsible for 80% of global greenhouse-gas emissions.

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