WASHINGTON — Wind turbines, solar panels and electric vehicles are spreading far more quickly around the world than many experts had predicted. But this rapid growth in clean energy isn’t yet fast enough to slash humanity’s greenhouse gas emissions and get global warming under control.
That’s the conclusion of the International Energy Agency, which on Tuesday published its annual World Energy Outlook, an 810-page report that forecasts global energy trends to 2040. Since last year, the agency has significantly increased its future projections for offshore wind farms, solar installations and battery-powered cars, both because these technologies keep getting cheaper and because countries like India keep ramping up their clean-energy targets.
But the report also issues a stark warning on climate change, estimating that the energy policies countries currently have on their books could cause global greenhouse gas emissions to continue rising for the next 20 years. One reason: The world’s appetite for energy keeps surging, and the rise of renewables so far hasn’t been fast enough to satisfy all that extra demand. The result: fossil fuels use, particularly natural gas, keeps growing to supply the rest.
“Without new policies in place, the world will miss its climate goals by a very large margin,” said Fatih Birol, the agency’s executive director.
Here are some of the report’s main takeaways:
Renewable electricity is set to surpass coal. Soon.
The world’s consumption of coal, the dirtiest of all fuels, is starting to stall. The report notes that global investment in new coal-fired power plants has slowed sharply in recent years, as countries like India are increasingly finding that a combination of solar panels and battery storage can often be a cheaper way to produce electricity.
Under current policies, the report predicts that renewables such as wind, solar and hydropower will surpass coal as the world’s dominant source of electricity by 2030, growing to 42 percent of global generation. Coal would drop to 34 percent. Natural gas, which is cleaner than coal but which still produces plenty of planet-warming emissions, is also poised to cut into coal’s market share.
Still, the agency notes that coal is far from dead: Hundreds of coal plants that have already been built in Asia are only 12 years old on average and are capable of operating for decades to come. It will be extremely difficult for the world to rapidly reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, the report warns, unless these existing plants are run less frequently, retired early or retrofitted with technology to capture their carbon dioxide pollution and bury it underground. This carbon capture technology remains costly and has struggled to gain traction.
Offshore wind goes big. And mainstream.
For years, it’s been much cheaper for most countries to build wind turbines on land. But in places like Europe’s North Sea, energy companies have recently been erecting large turbines offshore that can harvest the stronger and steadier winds over the ocean. And costs are falling fast, making the technology an increasingly attractive option for some countries.
Offshore wind now supplies 2 percent of the European Union’s electricity; the agency expects production there to increase ninefold by 2040. Companies are also planning major new offshore wind farms in the United States, China, South Korea and Japan. If developers can overcome regulatory and permitting hurdles, offshore wind could become a vital tool for slashing emissions in the years ahead.
S.U.V.s are erasing progress from electric cars
Last year, consumers around the world bought 2 million electric cars, spurred by a combination of falling battery costs and generous vehicle incentives in places like China and California. The agency expects purchases of electric cars to accelerate worldwide and, as a result, predicts that global gasoline and diesel use for cars could finally peak by the mid-2020s.
But this projection comes with a caveat: Even as countries promote electric cars, a growing number of people in the United States, Europe, China and India are also buying larger S.U.V.s, which consume more gasoline than conventional cars. In 2000, just 18 percent of passenger vehicles sold worldwide were S.U.V.s. Today, it’s 42 percent.
If this love affair with S.U.V.s continues, the report notes, it could wipe out much of the oil savings from the nascent electric-car boom. One key question, then, is whether carmakers can figure out how to manufacture, and convince people to buy, battery-powered versions of popular S.U.V. models.
Energy efficiency efforts are slowing
In addition to switching to cleaner sources of energy, countries can also curb their emissions by improving the energy efficiency of their factories, homes and vehicles through policies like building codes and fuel economy standards.
On this score, the report has bad news: In 2018, the energy intensity of the global economy, a measure of efficiency, improved by just 1.2 percent, one of the slowest rates in years. And many countries are weakening their policies, including the United States, where the Trump administration plans to roll back standards that would have required more efficient light bulbs.
Mr. Birol noted that there was significant room for improvement in nearly every country. “Two out of three buildings worldwide today are being built without efficiency codes and standards,” he said. “And those buildings can last for five to six decades, so focusing on efficiency is very important.”
What happens in Africa is crucial
This year’s report also highlights the role of Africa, which is projected to urbanize over the next few decades at a faster pace than China did in the 1990s and 2000s. If Africa pursues the same fossil-fuel heavy path to development that China did, greenhouse gas emissions could rise considerably.
But, Mr. Birol said, there are reasons to think that African nations can chart a cleaner path. The continent, for instance, currently has about 40 percent of the world’s potential for solar energy but still has less than 1 percent of the world’s solar panels. “I think energy developments in Africa are going to surprise many of the pessimists,” he said.