The head of the International Energy Agency has warned it will be impossible for the world to meet its climate targets, even the “modest ones,” if existing coal plants are allowed to continue operating at full capacity and for the full course of their lifetimes.
In a keynote address to the opening session of the Clean Energy Council’s first online-only Clean Energy Summit, IEA executive director Fatih Birol said the transition to renewable electricity was not enough; we should be working just as hard to decarbonise the remaining energy sector.
That is, rather than simply committing to a future where no new coal plants are built – a reality the notoriously conservative IEA accepted some years ago – we should be shutting down the existing global coal power fleet, or cleaning it up.
“The issue is, what to do with the existing coal plants,” Birol told the CEC webinar on Tuesday afternoon. “For me, it is the number one issue.
“Existing coal plants, if they operate for their normal economic lifetime… an average coal plant has a lifetime of 40 years or so, if they continue, it is impossible to reach our climate targets, even the modest ones,” he said.
“So, we have two big homework [tasks] in front of us: One, what we build new should be sustainable. Second, what do we do with the existing assets around the world? Steel facilities, cement factories, power plants – it is very important to decarbonise them.
“Even if everything new is zero carbon, it is not enough. We have to decarbonise the existing ones. And therefore, other technologies are very important; from hydrogen to carbon capture or other electrification technologies.”
The IEA chief’s frank comments impressed webinar host and Pacific Hydro CEO Rachel Watson, who described them as “very, very sobering,” particularly in light of Australia’s current energy policy debate, where new coal-fired power generation has not even been ruled out.
“So you’re well aware that the retirement of coal-fired power stations is a very hot topic in the Australian market. And I hadn’t actually heard it expressed exactly the way you did just now, that if we don’t retire early, some of the existing fleets, we will not reach our emissions reduction target,” Watson said.
“If we don’t retire [the coal plants] early, or, if we don’t use technology which decarbonises the existing plant, such as carbon capture,” Birol clarified.
“But as it stands, now, if they continue to operate as they are, impossible, and we can forget it. We can forget our climate targets,” he said.
This view was later reiterated by Kobad Bhavnagri, the global head of industry and building decarbonisation at Bloomberg New Energy Finance.
Speaking in a panel discussion following Dr Birol’s address, Bhavnagri said renewables were set to dominate new investment in electricity generating capacity, as the least-cost source of new electrons almost everywhere in the world.
“That means that the electricity system is definitely transforming, but it is incremental, because you still, of course, have all this fossil fuel capacity that remains in the system,” he told the Summit.
“To 2030, the pattern of investment driven by economics alone, we think, will keep the electricity sector on a pathway towards 2°C [of global warming].
“After 2030, we need more to happen and the economic change itself, and in particular the persistence of coal in the energy systems around the world… means that after 2030 the electricity system deviates from the 2°C pathway.
“And, in all cases, we’re very far away from the 1.5°C pathway, so there’s still a lot that needs to be done, a lot of intervention that needs to take place.”