A bombshell new 227-page report from the International Energy Agency on paths to avoiding climate catastrophe doesn’t mince words: “Beyond projects already committed as of 2021,” its authors write, “there are no new oil and gas fields approved for development in our pathway, and no new coal mines or mine extensions are required.” Put simply, the Paris-based intergovernmental organization declares—in big, bold text—what for American politicians is unthinkable: “There is no need for investment in new fossil fuel supply.” Drillers, the IEA suggests, will have to rely on “existing assets.”
This isn’t a group of lefty climate activists making the case for a rapid phaseout of fossil fuels but a body founded by Henry Kissinger to provide a geopolitical counterweight to OPEC. Environmentalists don’t even consider IEA particularly friendly to their cause—energy wonks routinely describe IEA scenarios as severely underestimating renewables. Fossil fuel companies have pointed to IEA estimates as proof that their core business model can continue indefinitely. But now, the IEA is pointing to policies more ambitious than some of the most ambitious climate plans on offer in Washington, D.C.
The scenario the IEA proposes to cap warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) involves getting oil investments in the next decade to roughly half of what they were between 2011 and 2020. Oil demand under the IEA’s net-zero scenario would decline 75 percent, and “unabated” gas—burned in plants not fitted with some kind of carbon-scrubbing device—would decline by 88 percent through 2050, along with 98 percent of unabated coal use. The remaining roughly one-fifth of fossil fuel usage by 2050 would largely power heavy and hard-to-decarbonize industries like steel, with solar and wind meeting 70 percent of energy demand. Renewables overall would increase by well over 700 percent. No internal combustion vehicles would be sold anywhere on earth by 2035, at which point wealthy economies will have power sectors run on clean energy.
This is a far cry from the fuzzy net-zero pledges put out by some of the world’s biggest polluting corporations, which foresee many decades of continued oil and gas demand and development before both eventually taper off at some ill-defined point well in the future. But the new IEA scenarios are also miles off from even the more progressive edges of the climate policy debate in Beltway circles.
In Washington, measures to directly constrain fossil fuel production remain a third rail. The Biden administration has framed the climate challenge largely as an investment and job creation opportunity for clean energy, though even its investment plans on that front remain dangerously modest. The American Jobs Plan would invest roughly 1 percent of gross domestic product in scaling up renewables and other green technology that the IEA recommends will be critical to meeting the goals outlined in the Paris Agreement. In an interview with the BBC last week, U.S. climate envoy John Kerry refused to commit to saying that any kind of firm U.S. coal phaseout was needed. Some proposals for a Clean Energy Standard could help greenlight new methane gas infrastructure, which might stay online for decades to come. Even the text of the Green New Deal resolution—that favorite bugbear of today’s conservatives, who love to portray it as some kind of mad eco-communism—doesn’t actually mention fossil fuels or plans to phase them out directly.
The mere existence of this new IEA report challenges the idea that calls to halt new fossil fuel development are the province of fringe environmentalists: Such changes are, its experts argue, needed to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. The report includes plenty of things that are controversial among climate activists: namely, the widespread use of bioenergy and carbon capture and storage. But on fossil fuels, they reach broadly similar conclusions: Start keeping much more of them in the ground, fast. What remains to be seen is whether the results of the IEA’s net-zero study will be fully integrated into its gold standard “World Energy Outlook,” an annual report used by decision-makers around the world to direct trillions of dollars’ worth of public and private capital.
The end of investments in new oil and gas fields means that some money could keep pouring into existing fields, as production centralizes in lower-cost and lower-carbon producers in the Middle East and North America. By 2050, the IEA predicts that OPEC would control half of world oil supplies. Without new fields to exploit, fossil fuel supplies would be expected to decline by around 4.5 percent per year, on average. Investment decisions are driven by what’s profitable, not what’s best for the planet. Accordingly, executives could continue pouring cash into projects that will see the world blow past two degrees Celsius of warming, unless there is new policy to render those investments unprofitable. (With Brent crude trading at $70 per barrel, fossil fuel executives aren’t about to ditch new developments en masse just because the IEA says they should.)
What this report ultimately does is confirm the complaints many activists have made in the past few months: The kinds of modest investments in clean energy expected from the White House’s infrastructure package are completely inadequate. Without tackling fossil fuel supply directly, the Biden administration is fighting an existential threat with one hand tied behind its back.
Of course, a new report doesn’t make legislative math any easier, or new regulations any more resilient against legal challenges. But it’s important to remember that the progress made in the past decade getting climate on the national agenda hasn’t been the result of aligning demands with what seems reasonable to D.C. insiders. Shortly after the International Panel on Climate Change released its special report on getting to 1.5 degrees in 2018, the Sunrise Movement and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez occupied Nancy Pelosi’s office, calling for a Green New Deal. That intervention helped shift the terms of the climate policymaking debate in the United States and around the world, putting massive green industrial policy on the table. Maybe this new report from the IEA, of all places, can inspire similarly productive disruptions.