When I attended the international climate negotiations in Doha late last year, my abiding impression was of disconnection from reality. In the sterile corridors of the Qatar National Convention Centre, there were posters advertising the various negotiating tracks, bearing empty aspirational words about 'cooperation' and 'livelihoods', and not a single picture or statement of what climate change really is or means. No wonder then that governments make so little progress, divorced from both the dirty energy causes of climate change, and the profound effects on people's lives.
When it comes to dirty energy, the International Energy Agency (IEA), a club of 28 wealthy nations concerned about their energy supplies, has long been a cheerleader. Even when it started to express concern about climate change several years ago, the IEA still demanded greater investment in the fossil fuels that cause it. These two positions are – as should be obvious to most people – not compatible.
Our addiction to fossil fuels has changed the climate and the warming we are responsible for has increased rainfall in Europe, which has in turn contributed to the devastating floods we are currently witnessing in Europe. (c) Greenpeace / Jan Rovenský
So it was welcome news last year when the IEA accepted the reality that most of the world's coal, oil and gas reserves would have to stay in the ground, if we are to avoid catastrophic climate change.
Yesterday, the IEA released a new report, showing that the internationally agreed target of maximum 2°C warming is achievable. The report recommends four easy steps governments could take to stay on a 2°C trajectory, at no cost to the economy: improving energy efficiency, limiting construction and use of coal power plants, reducing methane releases from oil and gas production, and cutting fossil fuel subsidies. The climate debate in recent months has seen a degree of fatalism about whether 2°C is still attainable. Today's report should kill off those doubts.
The report also takes away any remaining excuses for inaction by governments. On the one hand it shows that vital steps can be taken at no net cost, thus undermining the arguments that we can't afford to take action while the economy is down. On the other, it demonstrates that the later action is left, the most costly it will become. In particular, the IEA says that unless energy emissions peak before 2020, the costs will be severe. So waiting for better economic times would be a recipe for failure: the time to act is now.
The IEA doesn't get everything right. Firstly, it's under-ambitious. For example, it anticipates that renewable energy will provide 27% of power generation by 202. Greenpeace's Energy [R]evolution shows that 37% is possible. As a result, coal power plants in rich countries can and should be closed down much faster than the IEA proposes. After all, the IEA works from a premise of a 50-50 chance of staying within 2°C. Given that the risk of runaway climate change increases above that level, the coin-toss odds seem to reflect a dangerously casual attitude to risk. Secondly, even though it recognises that large-scale carbon capture and storage (CCS) remains a distant prospect, it suggests fitting or retro-fitting 30% of new fossil-fuelled plants with CCS.
Yet despite these flaws, the IEA is actively considering the meaning of a climate-changed future, unlike most governments. Perhaps part of the reason can be found in the report's other message, that the energy industry itself will have to get real, for it too is not immune from the impacts of a changing planet. Sea level rise and fiercer storms will hit coastal energy infrastructure; ice floes and melting roads or pipeline routes will disrupt Arctic drilling; drought will put coal mining and burning in direct competition with people for scarce water supplies.
Will politicians continue to hope that climate change magically goes away? Let's hope this report helps build a bridge between climate reality and political fantasy.
Greg Muttitt is leading the climate team at Greenpeace International.