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Exposing the Massive Gap Between Words & Action on Climate Change

<p>As COP17 kicks off, and the International Energy Agency publishes a bleak annual energy outlook report, it's time to explore how politicians say one thing and do nothing when it comes to addressing greenhouse gas emissions.</p>

Listening to executives of the International Energy Agency discuss their World Energy Outlook 2011 report yesterday morning at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, even as the COP17 global climate negotiations begin in Durban, I found myself recalling Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady when she sang:

Words! Words! Words!
I'm so sick of words!
I get words all day through, first from him, now from you!
Is that all you blighters can do?

energy outlook coverWhy? Because the cold, hard data in the authoritative IEA report underscores the yawning gap between the words that we hear from the world's political and business leaders and what is actually happening on the ground (and in the air).

Here are a few examples:

Rhetoric: Virtually every world leader and CEO says anthropogenic climate change is a serious problem. Thousands have traveled in Durban to talk, interminably, about climate justice, climate finance, post-Kyoto, etc.

Reality: Energy-related carbon-dioxide (CO2) emissions in 2010 were the highest in history. They've grown, in large part, because roughly half of the growth in energy use during the last decade came from coal, as this chart shows. Most countries and most companies emit more greenhouse gases today than ever.

Rhetoric: Just about everyone -- business people, enviros, Democrats, Republicans -- supports energy efficiency. What's not to like?

Reality: The world is using energy less efficiently. This comes as a shock, at least to me, because technological improvements should be making cars, appliances, factories and homes more efficient. Energy efficiency is "on the top of the agenda of every government, but when you get the numbers there's a big décolletage there," says Fatih Birol, the chief economist of the IEA. (He's a Turk who lives in Paris, which may explain the reference to cleavage.) Emerging markets like China and Russia, where energy usage is growing fastest, are less efficient than the U.S. and E.U., it turns out.

Rhetoric: "Clean energy is the future." This is the kind of thing that's said all the time, particularly here in Washington. "The President has taken unprecedented action to build the foundation for a clean energy economy" says the White House website.

Reality: That's true, but insufficient. The IEA, after making a series of assumptions about global policy, forecasts that coal and natural gas will power more than half of the world's expanding need for electricity, between now and 2035, as this chart shows:

So does this dose of reality leave me depressed, or give me hope? A little of both, it turns out.

Depressed, yes, and for obvious reasons. Business-as-usual puts us on a path to climate disaster. "To me, this is a horror movie," said Birol. Because power plants and factories last for decades, the energy infrastructure that's already been built means that we (literally the global we) have already locked in about 80 percent of the GHG "budget" that scientists say we can emit to hold the projected rise in global temperatures to about 2 degrees, according to the IEA.

Think of it as a diet, Birol said. A doctor says you are allowed a certain number of calories a day. "You eat a very good Turkish baklava," he said. "Already, 80 percent of your calories are locked in." We've been consuming the energy equivalent of too much baklava. Time to switch to lettuce.

Yet there's reason here to be hopeful.

First, facts are good. Without them, we'd have no hope of grasping the magnitude of the problem we're facing.

Second, most of the energy growth of the next two decades will come from China, India and the developing world. They may opt for nuclear, wind and solar over coal, if only to deal with local pollution problems.

Third, as they say, predictions are hard, especially about the future. It's not that I doubt climate science, although a study out just last week suggests that climate sensitivity to rising GHG concentrations may be less than previously thought. But I do believe in the possibility of a technology breakthrough that could disrupt the energy business and make the IEA's projections look silly. Cheap solar is probably our best hope. (See my blogpost of a week ago, NRG Energy: Hoping to score with solar.) It's also impossible to know what will happen with energy storage, electric-car batteries or even my personal favorite, carbon capture from the air. (See my blogpost and FORTUNE story, The Business of Cooling the Planet.)

Words, after all, can eventually lead to action. And human ingenuity is a marvelous thing.

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