Of all the outfits you wouldn’t expect to jump on the Net Zero bandwagon, the International Energy Agency is, well, not among them. In a world that values virtue-signaling, it’s the trendy thing to do… and for government-funded outfits the lucrative one. But making nonsense common and rewarding (our vet recently tried to sell us more flea and tick medication on the grounds that the planet was warming) doesn’t make it good sense. The press, a noted hotbed of people who accuse others of not being climate scientists, was elated at the IEA’s leap of illogic. For instance CTV chortled (via AFP) that “All future fossil fuel projects must be scrapped if the world is to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 and to stand any chance of limiting warming to 1.5 C, the International Energy Agency said Tuesday.” Oh. Just that? Any questions about feasibility? No, of course not.
The debate over climate, if debate is the right word, includes activists being convinced that if they could just manage the bureaucratic capture of one more giant quasi-governmental outfit full of people earning massive salaries for saying the stuff their paymasters want to hear, it would finally nudge all those dolts out there into embracing Net Zero. Thus Climate Home News was popping the bubbly, or something suitably uncarbonated: “Watershed moments don’t come around too often in the slow world of climate diplomacy. But the International Energy Agency’s first comprehensive scenario to align the energy sector with limiting global heating to 1.5C is a major turning point.” Again mistaking words for deeds, and mistaking posing for a statue for earning one.
The bottom line is that every time the activists get another agency to join the chorus, and they are running out of targets, it bumps into the same prosaic reality that alternative energy doesn’t work properly. Thus for instance as soon as the IEA said hey everyone out of the oil patch, a rousing chorus of raspberries was heard from Japan to Australia to the Philippines to Indonesia. As Reuters put it, “Asia snubs IEA’s call to stop new fossil fuel investments”. Yup. Now Japan got spooked over nuclear because of very bad design at Fukushima. But they’ve got to get their energy from somewhere. And a passing cloud might not be ideal.
The IEA itself admits that its plan is pie in the sky. But as though it had therefore nailed it. “The number of countries that have pledged to reach net‐zero emissions by mid‐century or soon after continues to grow, but so do global greenhouse gas emissions. This gap between rhetoric and action needs to close if we are to have a fighting chance of reaching net zero by 2050 and limiting the rise in global temperatures to 1.5 °C. Doing so requires nothing short of a total transformation of the energy systems that underpin our economies.”
Is that it? Yes. And hop to it: “We are in a critical year at the start of a critical decade for these efforts.” So the IEA it sets out a mere 400 “clear milestones” meaning we’d better whip past at least 40 a year starting five months ago. Which luckily a computer says will make us all richer than Croesus or something: “our Roadmap, drawing on special analysis carried out with the International Monetary Fund and the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis… shows that the enormous challenge of transforming our energy systems is also a huge opportunity for our economies, with the potential to create millions of new jobs and boost economic growth.”
Under the circumstances you’d expect entrepreneurs to be rushing in where skeptics fear to tread. But wait. You also get social justice: “Another guiding principle of the Roadmap is that clean energy transitions must be fair and inclusive, leaving nobody behind.” Not one single person. Wow. You can do that? Every single person in India will be included, especially the hundreds of millions currently lacking electricity?
You bet. Because all that breathless hype was just the Foreword by IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol. Wait until we get to the substantive text. There you find over 200 pages of inspirational calendar thoughts like “The global pathway to net‐zero emissions by 2050 detailed in this report requires all governments to significantly strengthen and then successfully implement their energy and climate policies” and “The path to net‐zero emissions is narrow: staying on it requires immediate and massive deployment of all available clean and efficient energy technologies.” And on it drones with highly predictable statements about what needs to be done to get from Kansas to Oz, and no instructions on building or directing a hot air balloon.
Such tedious how-to sheets are not, alas, fashionable. Thus the Calgary Herald (of all publications one might once have said) gloated (via Bloomberg) that “The world has a choice — stop developing new oil, gas and coal fields today or face a dangerous rise in global temperatures. That’s the bold assessment from the International Energy Agency, the organization that has spent four decades working to secure oil supplies for industrialized nations.” Bold. Aka goofy.
After lavishing attention on the IEA’s fantasies, the Herald said “Reducing emissions to net zero — the point at which greenhouse gases are removed from the atmosphere as quickly as they’re added — is considered vital to limit the increase in average global temperatures to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius. That’s seen as the critical threshold if the world is to avoid disastrous climate change. But it’s a path that few are following.”
The “is considered” and “is seen as” is a classic agency-free version of “experts say”. But at least we did get the eventual admission the IEA wishing for a unicorn isn’t the same thing as going out in the yard and finding one there.
CTV meanwhile reported that the IEA “predicts ‘a sharp decline in fossil fuel demand, meaning that the focus for oil and gas producers switches entirely to output -– and emissions reductions –- from the operation of existing assets’.” But in the true spirit of investigative activism, it does not look around to see if fossil fuel demand is, you know, decreasing. It’s not. “Overall, fossil fuels are set to account for only around a fifth of energy supply by 2050, down from almost four-fifths currently, the report showed.”
Showed? Well, eventually the reporters looked out the window: “Dave Jones, global lead at the energy think tank Ember, said Tuesday’s assessment was “a complete turnaround of the fossil-led IEA from five years ago”. “This is truly a knife into the fossil fuel industry,” he said. The report’s findings are sharply at odds with the spending plans of oil and gas majors.” However they then stuck in, in bold face caps, “PANDERING TO INDUSTRY FEARS”. So there you have it. Reason against primal emotion. Just be careful which you are.
It’s important to realize that groups like the IEA, and governments generally, operate in an environment where money does figuratively grow on trees. You can sling any amount of it about on a whim and it costs you nothing. Thus “Government of Canada invests $4.4 million in climate action and awareness for young Canadians”. Which went to the “Clean Foundation,” an “independent, non-governmental environmental charity“ that in the last year for which its financials are available had $3.8 million in government grants, $61 thousand in donations and $4.58 million in unspecified “Service contracts and sponsorships”. The same day the same government slung $2.8 million at “three community-led clean energy projects across the northern coast of Labrador… and if they don’t yield a significant return, well, there’s more where that came from. Something to remember next time you’re told we’re lavishly funded by oil companies.
The point here isn’t envy. Well, not really. We’d like a share of that change. But fundamentally it’s that in spending all this money, governments count the benefits in up-front publicity and close the books. It doesn’t actually have to work down the road when everyone has forgotten except the grateful beneficiaries in key constituencies. But when you decide to scrap fossil fuels in a decade, you need something with more practical impact than a fancy expensive consultant’s report or a bureaucratic structure.