IEA Says Natural Gas to Play Key Role in Climate Talks

By Rick Mitchell

Nov. 18 — Natural gas, the “least carbon-intensive fossil fuel,” could play a key role in reaching global climate goals, an issue at the center of upcoming talks in Paris, said the head of the International Energy Agency.

Fatih Birol, the agency's new executive director, noted that energy production and use account for two-thirds of global greenhouse gas emissions, so energy policies will be key at the Paris talks starting Nov. 30, which have the aim of achieving a global deal to fight climate change, largely through commitments to cut carbon dioxide emissions.

Speaking at the agency's Nov. 17–18 ministerial meeting, which brought together energy ministers from the Paris-based agency's 29 members, including the world's advanced economies and many of its biggest energy users and carbon dioxide emitters, Birol said IEA ministers approved his three-pillar plan for modernizing the agency's strategy to face today's “transformed” global energy landscape.

That starts with doing more to bring emerging economies into the IEA's work, Birol said.

IEA's members now account for less than 50 percent of global energy consumption, but including non-IEA emerging economies, that rises to over 75 percent, according to Birol.

The meeting included representatives from the biggest emerging economies: Brazil, China, Indonesia, India, Mexico, Morocco, South Africa and Thailand, with Mexico and Chile announcing plans to join the agency. Some 30 leaders from business and the energy industry also attended.

U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, who chaired the meeting, said natural gas will play an important part in shorter term U.S. efforts to cut power sector greenhouse gas emissions, but special technologies could be needed to “really squeeze down” on emissions from gas in the very long term.

‘Central Bank of Energy Efficiency.'

The IEA was created in the 1970s to advise wealthy countries on energy security and other energy matters in the wake of the Arab oil embargo of 1973. But with liquid natural gas flows growing worldwide, it now has a mandate to broaden its security work beyond oil, to include coordinating “global” security of flows of natural gas, Birol said.

IEA is known for its expertise on “traditional” fuels and technologies, but Birol said he intends to make the agency an “international hub” for clean energy technologies, especially energy efficiency.

“We want to be the international voice of energy efficiency, providing data, advice, best practices, and exchange them between countries. In other words, we want to be the central bank of energy efficiency at the international level,” he said.

IEA ministers released a statement calling for success at the 221st Conference of the Parties at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Paris, and setting out “five key opportunities” aimed at reducing energy sector greenhouse gas emissions.

These include increasing energy efficiency in the industry, buildings and transportation sectors; phaseout of inefficient coal-fired power plants; boosting investment in renewable energy technologies; gradually phasing out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies and reducing methane emissions from oil and gas production.

The UN has said that one goal of the Paris agreement is to hold global warming below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) compared with pre-industrial levels.

Asked if natural gas can contribute to that goal, Birol said it could, if it replaces fuels that have higher carbon content. “In many countries, by replacing coal, gas did reduce the CO2 emissions, and as a result is definitely part of the 2 degree trajectory,” he said.

The IEA said even under a 2 degree scenario, about 60 percent of energy would still come from fossil fuels, but natural gas would be the only fossil fuel to increase its market share. “To push for renewables, to push for energy efficiency with technologies doesn't mean that we abandon gas and other fuels,” Birol said.

Market Driven

Moniz said the U.S. is a “good example” of gas substitution for coal. Coal has gone from 50 percent of U.S. electricity generation to roughly a third within a decade, and this year for the first time, natural gas exceeded coal in electricity generation. That process, driven by the market, not policy, has accounted for a substantial part of U.S. carbon dioxide emission reductions in the past 10 years, he said.

Moniz said the Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Power Plan aims to reduce power sector carbon dioxide emissions by 32 percent by 2030. And “gas will undoubtedly play an important role in that, along with renewables and efficiency,” he said.

“I would say that if you go to the very long term, and exactly how many decades that is I won't speculate, when we have to really squeeze down on CO2 very dramatically, well then, at that point in the power sector, [gas] will have to be used with carbon capture and sequestration,” Moniz said.

He said another major U.S. initiative is to squeeze down on methane emissions, another key greenhouse gas. “Natural gas methane that is escaping is a powerful greenhouse gas. We are looking at that all the way from production, through transmission to end use,” Moniz said.

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