A new energy forecast shows the danger of inaction as well as a pathway to progress

By Mark Radka, Chief, Energy and Climate Branch, United Nations Environment Programme, (pictured)
Winter 2019

Mark Radka, Chief, Energy and Climate Branch, United Nations Environment ProgrammeOfficials from nearly every country are gathered in Madrid for the latest round of international climate talks – and their meetings come on the heels of a new warning.

The International Energy Agency, in a November report, calculated that even if all nations deliver on their climate pledges to date, the world is on track for ever-rising greenhouse gas emissions through 2040. That’s a far cry from the cuts needed to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement.

The IEA also delivered a key insight: The "single most important element" for reducing greenhouse gas emissions while not stunting economic development is a sharp pick-up in energy efficiency improvements across the world.

Governments and the private sector must heed this call.

Far too much of the energy used today in countries across the world is in a sense wasted. For example, even in wealthy nations, many homes are poorly sealed – meaning heated or cooled air goes straight outdoors, providing no benefit to the occupants. And many buildings rely on decades-old, inefficient technologies to heat or cool the air in the first place.

More efficient lamps, air conditioners, refrigerators, and other appliances are available today, but energy efficiency standards and investments don’t promote their widespread use, even though they save money for consumers and society as a whole.

Governments in some economies have adopted standards that ban inefficient products from their markets. In most countries, however, either no standards exist or they haven’t kept pace with advances in technology and are outdated, meaning that roughly two thirds of the world’s energy is consumed by products or in buildings that are in a sense out of date.

This leaves large opportunities for improvement. If stringent policies covering just five electricity consuming products were adopted globally, the electricity generated by over 500 large power plants would be saved, trimming utility bills for consumers by $100 billion.

Both governments and businesses have roles to play in doubling down on energy efficiency. Governments need to prioritize investments in efficiency improvements and put in place minimum energy performance standards and other policies that drive progress. Governments can also remove incentives for fossil fuel energy production and consumption, shifting the emphasis to using less energy in delivering desired services rather than producing more energy.

The private sector must continue to improve technologies, deploy better products, and share their experience in energy management, particularly in developing countries.

With increased public-private collaboration, worldwide energy efficiency can improve by three percent annually. This rate of improvement, possible using existing technologies, would deliver more than 40 percent of the greenhouse gas reductions needed to meet Paris Agreement targets. In other words, energy efficiency by itself can provide almost half of the climate solution.

There are new initiatives driving the needed focus on energy efficiency collaboration and investment. The Three Percent Club – launched in September by the United Nations Environment Programme, the International Energy Agency, Sustainable Energy for All and its Energy Efficiency Accelerators and Hub, the Global Environment Facility, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and the EE Global Alliance – is building a coalition of countries, businesses, and international organizations that are committed to realizing a three percent global increase in energy efficiency each year.

As nations develop their updated commitments under the Paris Agreement, they must make using energy more efficiently a core part of the approach. Energy efficiency is the single most cost-effective tool for reducing carbon emissions. Without a change in course and a more aggressive commitments, we’ll keep missing too much of this opportunity.