The past decade has seen a number of major shifts in global energy systems. After years of rising natural gas exports, the United States suddenly finds itself awash in domestic supply. The nuclear industry, which until a few years ago anticipated a "renaissance" of new construction, has found its growth checked by the aftershocks of Japan's Fukushima Daiichi disaster.

Consumption of fossil fuels continues to rise, meanwhile, despite heavy investments from both developed and developing countries into renewables and energy efficiency.

While each of these shifts has brought a mixed bag of costs and benefits, as a whole they remain a far cry from the kind of managed transformation the world will need to head off severe climate change, according to a new long-term analysis by the International Energy Agency (IEA).

"In the face of rapidly expanding energy demand and the increasingly urgent threat of climate change, we are continuing to respond to the energy system as it evolves rather than actively managing its transformation," Didier Houssin, IEA's director of sustainable energy policy and technology, said yesterday at the report's launch.

The report, titled "Energy Technology Perspectives 2014," examines long-term trends in the sector, weighing the progress of energy sources and infrastructure against the dual imperatives of economic development and climate mitigation.

And as IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven pointed out, the imperatives remain overshadowed by the long-term trends.

"We must get it right, but we're on the wrong path at the moment," she said in a statement.

"Growing use of coal globally is overshadowing progress in renewable energy deployment, and the emissions intensity of the electricity system has not changed in 20 years. ... A radical change of course at the global level is long overdue."

Does more electricity mean burning more coal?
Carbon intensity, generally defined as carbon produced per unit of gross domestic product, has been falling in developed countries, and some developing countries have pledged to reduce their own levels by as much as 45 percent by the end of the decade.

Overall, however, gains in efficiency and the introduction of renewables continue to be offset by the expanding role of coal in the developing world.

Most of that coal is being burned to generate electricity, which replaces oil as the primary carrier of the world's energy by 2050 in the report's low-emissions scenario.

In both high- and low-emissions scenarios, electricity is projected to play a stronger role in future energy systems, said David Elzinga, a senior energy technology analyst with IEA.

"Electricity demand is growing across all the sectors that we analyzed," he said, noting that demand is on track to double or more than double by midcentury.

Unlike transportation, which depends almost exclusively on oil, electricity can be produced by a wide variety of non-fossil-fuel technologies. Growing the electrical sector—and potentially merging it with the transportation sector through the adoption of electric cars—will be a climate win if that growth comes from low-carbon sources like nuclear and renewables.

At the moment, though, coal, oil and gas account for about two-thirds of all electrical generation. And until that ratio changes, more electrical generation means more carbon emissions, Elzinga said.

Common problem but differing approaches
Climate change is every country's problem, but the developed and developing worlds have very different challenges ahead of them in transitioning their energy systems away from fossil fuels, according to the IEA report.

Energy demand in the developed world is increasing only marginally with efficiency gains displacing most of the growth generated by population and the economy. The challenge for these countries is to balance increasing penetrations of variable renewables with practices and infrastructure that was built for a different era.

The developing world, on the other hand, is in the process of building out its own energy infrastructure and thus has an opportunity to adopt the best practices and most modern technologies from developed countries. Its challenge, rather, is to manage its own surging growth in demand without pushing the world over a climate cliff.

Accomplishing an energy transition that keeps the world under 2 degrees Celsius of warming would be expensive, the report notes, putting the total cost at $44 trillion. Yet this is a relatively small fraction of global GDP and would be offset by fuel savings by an order of magnitude.

And every year that the transition is delayed, Houssin noted, its cost rises.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500