(The author is a Reuters market analyst. The views expressed
are his own.)
By Gerard Wynn
LONDON, April 17 Global carbon emissions per
unit of energy supply have barely changed in more than two
decades, the International Energy Agency said on Wednesday, but
other data show an even starker picture where world energy is
Either way, flat or rising carbon intensity in global energy
consumption shows how growing adoption of renewable energy in
some countries has so far failed to move the dial on the global
That in turn underlines a failure to achieve wider carbon
emissions cuts beyond switching to renewable sources of
The IEA has set much stall by an additional rollout of
efficiency measures which it says can account for nearly half
all global carbon emissions cuts required by 2020 to keep
ambitious global climate action on track.
Such measures are failing partly because the private sector
demands a very rapid payback on upfront investments, even if
these are cost-effective in the longer term.
The carbon intensity of global energy consumption is rising,
according to BP's energy data published last year, and in 2011
was higher than at any time since 1990. (See Chart 1)
The BP data show how the rising carbon intensity trend is
almost entirely driven by surging coal consumption in non-OECD
countries which are seeking to drive economic growth with one of
the world's cheapest, most available fuels. (Chart 2)
Carbon intensity of energy in non-OECD countries in 2011 was
at higher levels than at any time since 1984.
The recent financial crisis which particularly engulfed
developed countries has had less impact, where the carbon
intensity of energy in OECD countries has seen year on year
falls since 2007, broadly following earlier trends as the United
States shifts from coal to gas and Europe implements renewable
The IEA said on Wednesday that the global carbon intensity
of energy supply had "remained essentially static, changing by
less than 1 percent" since 1990, painting a marginally more
optimistic picture. (Chart 3)
Chart 1: link.reuters.com/xus47t
Chart 2: link.reuters.com/bys47t
Chart 3: (page 8) goo.gl/kp2Vz
Chart 4: link.reuters.com/cys47t
Some analysts have argued for a prioritisation of investment
in energy research and development, to cut costs before wider
adoption of renewable and other low-carbon technologies in
The IEA's Wednesday report calculated that energy research
development and diffusion (RD&D) had fallen to below half 1981
levels, when measured as a proportion of IEA member state wider
The IEA appeals to so-called "no regrets" investments in
energy efficiency, which have clear economic benefits in fuel
savings regardless of concerns about climate change.
That makes sense, but private sector investors sometimes
rule out efficiency investments with paybacks of even as few as
three years (meaning it takes three years of energy savings to
pay off the upfront capital cost), underlining how quickly
economic actors discount the benefits of any upfront investment.
The IEA acknowledged that point, in its report.
"Barriers such as high upfront capital costs, customer
indifference, and lack of awareness or capacity, leave much
cost-effective energy-efficiency potential untapped. Economic
incentives are crucial to drive change and investment; standards
and codes have also proven effective, as have awareness building
and training schemes."
For example, the IEA has previously cited data with regards
to a reluctance of truck operators to adopt efficiency measures
without rapid paybacks, in its report last year: "Technology
Roadmap Fuel Economy of Road Vehicles".
"There is increasing evidence that truckers use a fairly
short payback period for fuel efficiency decisions (of)
approximately three years ... which is inconsistent with an
approach that is optimal for society," it reported.
Desperately slow falls in the carbon intensity of world
economic growth (measured as carbon emissions per unit of GDP)
over the past decade show how policies to drive more efficient
consumption have recently failed to make much headway. (See
One way to drive such efficiency investment is through
mandatory standards where a ratcheting down of fuel economy
standards in the European automobile sector has successfully
wrung cost-effective efficiencies out of carmakers.
But global carbon intensity figures illustrate the
difficulty in translating such regional, sectoral efforts into
carbon cuts across the global energy sector for as long as
developing countries are more focused on growing their
(Editing by Keiron Henderson)