19 October 2021. Energy | Work
The IEA is a believer in the energy transition, at last; The four Rs of post-pandemic America.
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I think it’s fair to say that last week’s Energy Outlook from the International Energy Agency represents a significant moment in the discourse around renewable energy.
I’m going to pull this together from several sources, but let’s start with the Executive Summary, which argues that there’s still a window of opportunity that can keep us to 1.5 degree warming by 2050.
It involves four critical actions:
1. 'A massive additional push for clean electrification that requires a doubling of solar PV and wind deployment relative to the APS (Announced Pledges Scenario); a major expansion of other low-emissions generation, including the use of nuclear power where acceptable; a huge build-out of electricity infrastructure and all forms of system flexibility, including from hydropower; a rapid phase out of coal; and a drive to expand electricity use for transport and heating.’
This would close one-third of the current gap between the APS and the Net Zero Environment (NZE) 2050 scenario, and is the best policy lever available to policy makers.
2. 'A relentless focus on energy efficiency, together with measures to temper energy service demand through materials efficiency and behavioural change.’
Energy efficiency has been increasing by 2% a year; it needs to double in the coming decade.
3. 'A broad drive to cut methane emissions from fossil fuel operations. Rapid reductions in methane emissions are a key tool to limit near-term global warming.’
To be clear: this requires active steps to reduce methane emissions, not just reduction in fossil fuel use.
4. 'A big boost to clean energy innovation. This is another crucial gap to be filled in the 2020s, even though most of the impacts on emissions are not felt until later.’
This is probably the most contentious area, but the IEA believes that half of the technologies that contribute to emissions reductions in 2050 will come from technologies at the ‘demonstration’ or ‘prototype’ stage. That really depends on how quickly they can come through to market; energy is an area where technologies have long lifetimes, and slow turnover rates.
On the upside:
More than 40% of the actions required are cost-effective, meaning that they result in overall cost savings to consumers compared with the pathway in the APS. All countries need to do more: those with existing net zero pledges account for about half of the additional reductions, notably China.
In its coverage Forbes focussed on the accelerating forecasts in the Report about the decline of oil in particular. Their projection for peak demand for oil is now 2025, a lot sooner than previous projections. The Report has a telling chart comparing previous projections for oil, gas, and coal demand. The orange line is the one to look at.
The reason I say that it’s a decisive moment is that the IEA was set up to represent the interests of energy consuming nations in the wake of the oil crisis in the 1970s, and has always seemed close to fossil fuel interests.
Carbon Commentary re-published a fascinating note written by Kingsmill Bond of Carbon Tracker—headed, ‘The IEA finally starts to believe in the energy transition’. He captured this sense of a change of direction:
In the same way as it is much more profitable to buy an unloved stock where management turns it around, the impact of the IEA’s analysis is all the more powerful because they have moved over the course of the last couple of years from supporting continuity of the fossil fuel system to embracing renewables. And why not - when the facts change, you change your mind after all.
His note captures the main points from the news conference held by the IEA to launch the 2021 report. It’s a long list, so let me just pull out a few here:
- This is the decade of disruptions. Coal demand has already peaked and oil and gas demand will likely peak by 2025. 2019 thus was the peak in fossil fuel demand, and we are bouncing along the plateau.
- There is a lot that we can do at no economic cost to reduce emissions this decade. By 6Gt extra in total. And we can deploy 800 GW of new solar and wind at no economic cost as they are cheaper than the fossil fuel alternative.
- A new geopolitics of energy will emerge as trade shifts from fossil fuels to minerals and hydrogen.
- New energy is a huge market opportunity, with demand increasing tenfold to over $1tn and a new opportunity bigger than oil today.
The whole note is well worth reading.
The first is the Great Resignation. People are quitting their jobs in record numbers. The record for resignations was broken in April—and then again in July and again in August.
quitting is a concept typically associated with losers and loafers. But this level of quitting is really an expression of optimism that says, We can do better... Since the 1980s, Americans have quit less, and many have clung to crappy jobs for fear that the safety net wouldn’t support them while they looked for a new one. But Americans seem to be done with sticking it out. And they’re being rewarded for their lack of patience: Wages for low-income workers are rising at their fastest rate since the Great Recession.
The second is the Great Rudeness. In the leisure and hospitality sector, 7% of all workers—in in 14–quit in August. One reason might be that post-pandemic, American customers seem to have become very rude. (Although they might have been very rude long before).
Leisure and hospitality workers might be saying “to hell with this” on account of Americans deciding to behave like a pack of escaped zoo animals... American customers have poured into the late-pandemic economy with abandon, like the unfurling of so many angry pinched hoses. I don’t blame thousands of servers and clerks for deciding that suffering nonstop rudeness should never be a job requirement.
The third R is the Great Reset. Home seems to matter a lot more:
More families today work at home, cook at home, care for kids at home, entertain themselves at home, and even school their kids at home. The writer Aaron M. Renn has called this the rise of the DIY family, and it represents a new vision of work-life balance that is still coming into focus.
And the fourth R is the Great Reshuffling, as people start to move around the country again.
For decades, many measures of U.S. entrepreneurship declined. But business formation has surged since the beginning of the pandemic, and the largest category by far is e-commerce. This has coincided with an uptick in moves, especially to the suburbs of large metropolitan areas... Several years ago, I wrote that America had lost its “mojo,” because its citizens were less likely to switch jobs, move to another state, or create new companies than they were 30 (or 100) years ago. Well, so much for all that.
Thompson thinks all of this is a good thing, and he’s probably right. He describes the effect of all of this as ‘a great pushing outwards’:
Migration to the suburbs accelerated. More people are quitting their job to start something new. Before the pandemic, the office served for many as the last physical community left, especially as church attendance and association membership declined. But now even our office relationships are being dispersed. The Great Resignation is speeding up, and it’s created a centrifugal moment in American economic history.
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