Decoding the IEA's Scenario Spin: Real Reform or More of the Same?

it's time for the IEA to step up or step aside. (Photograph: Shutterstock)

Decoding the IEA's Scenario Spin: Real Reform or More of the Same?

From the IEA’s preview materials, we already know this: The IEA is still failing, in 2019, to respond to climate emergency and steer energy decisions away from fossil fuels and towards the renewable future required to limit global warming to 1.5°C.

In anticipation of the mid-November release of the 2019 World Energy Outlook, the International Energy Agency (IEA) posted a new blog and scenario overview describing forthcoming changes to its flagship publication and defending the climate "alignment" of its most ambitious scenario. While the full World Energy Outlook (WEO) and its data are not yet public, the IEA has given us enough information to decode whether they are making real changes or giving us more spin.

The TL;DR answer: When it comes to the most meaningful metric, the IEA has unfortunately failed to deliver real reform. From what we've seen, WEO 2019 will not answer the growing calls of investors, climate scientists, and business leaders - or respond to the raging wildfires, super-charged hurricanes, and deadly heatwaves caused by the escalating climate crisis. It will not yet put an energy scenario that gives the world a realistic chance of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (degC) - and meeting the full ambition of the Paris Agreement - at the heart of the WEO.

Reform at the IEA is sorely needed

As Bloomberg columnist Liam Denning put it so well earlier this year: "When I use Google Maps, it gives me several options, but I usually take the one it highlights without thinking too much about it."

As Denning goes on to explain, the WEO is like "a map used by the people, companies and institutions planning and building the roads. If its scenarios point a certain way, then investments will be made accordingly in such things as power plants, pipelines and oil and gas fields, facts on the ground with multi-decade lifespans."

Yet, in recent versions of the WEO, the IEA has continued to feature as its "highlighted" route a business-as-usual scenario that would lead to around 3degC of global warming. In 2017, the IEA introduced the Sustainable Development Scenario (SDS), a secondary scenario that is meant to reflect the goals of the Paris Agreement. But, as we've detailed previously, it does not deliver. The SDS is not aligned with full ambition of the Paris Agreement to limit warming to 1.5degC. This is a big problem because, if the world is to avoid the worst climate damage and human suffering, then energy decisions need to redirect to that route right now.

What is changing in 2019?

The preview of WEO 2019 does include some positive changes that show the IEA is paying attention to calls for greater ambition and transparency.

The IEA is giving the business-as-usual, 3degC scenario a name change. Instead of the "New Policies Scenario," which made it sound like the scenario modelled new ambition, it will be called the "Stated Policies Scenario" or STEPS.

The IEA has extended the time horizon of the Sustainable Development Scenario to 2050, providing 10 more years of data.

The IEA also reveals that, "In the WEO-2019, we explore what it would take to achieve stabilisation at 1.5degC with a 50% probability without net negative emissions." If this were a new full scenario, including data tables, it would be a significant addition. But in the IEA's preview it sounds more like an afterthought, making us think it might just get a short description (in the way that more ambitious goals made a cameo in WEO 2016).

We welcome shifts towards improved transparency and, in the latter case, a recognition of the need for greater ambition. But they do not fundamentally change the substance.

If the newly named 3degC scenario, STEPS, remains the default scenario, the IEA is still prioritizing a road map towards climate chaos. Extending an inadequate SDS scenario to 2050 does not solve its shortfalls in ambition. "Exploring" 1.5degC scenarios in a few paragraphs does not shift the overall emphasis of the WEO to center climate safety.

Decoding the spin

When it comes to the urgent need for a robust, central, 1.5degC-aligned energy scenario that doesn't gamble our future on unproven technologies, the IEA unfortunately presents far more spin than substance.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5degCfinds that we need to reach net-zero carbon emissions globally by 2050 to have a chance at limiting warming to that level.

By contrast, the 2019 SDS, just like the 2018 SDS, provides a trajectory towards net-zero carbon emissions from energy by 2070. The SDS has a 20-year gap in ambition compared to the latest science on what it will take to stay within 1.5degC.

Despite this clear disconnect, the IEA makes a lot of claims about how close the 2019 SDS could get us to 1.5degC.

It says that, "The SDS holds the temperature rise to below 1.8degC with a 66% probability without reliance on global net-negative CO2 emissions; this is equivalent to limiting the temperature rise to 1.65degC with a 50% probability." It calls this "fully aligned with the Paris Agreement." The IEA then goes even further and claims that, "A level of net negative emissions significantly smaller than that used in most scenarios assessed by the IPCC would provide the Sustainable Development Scenario with a 50% probability of limiting the rise in global temperatures to 1.5degC."

First off, let's set the record straight: The IEA deftly but deceptively uses this tiny word "net" to confuse us. They are NOT saying that the SDS will hold temperature rise below 1.8degC based on its own pace of fossil fuel decline (or in the case of gas, possible increase). They are NOT saying the SDS takes a precautionary approach to risky, unproven negative emissions technologies (NETs). The SDS could be relying on loads of NETs in the second half of the century to compensate for continued fossil fuel use but, by the IEA's wording, as long as the balance of the two equals zero, there is nothing to see.

The figures below, using 2019 data taken from the IEA's website, cut through the spin and show the truth: The IEA has not meaningfully increased the ambition of the SDS in 2019. It gets us approximately 2 billion tonnes (Gt) lower in emissions by 2040 compared to the 2018 version, in part to compensate for a higher peak in 2020 emissions.

The trajectory of the SDS is still barely more ambitious than the IEA's 450S scenario from 2016, which gave a 50% chance of limiting warming to 2degC. And it is far off the pace of emissions decline toward 1.5degC that the IEA outlined in 2016, the last time the WEO explored full Paris alignment without reliance on negative emissions technologies.

The only way the IEA can claim the SDS is Paris-aligned is through reliance on massive levels of negative emissions in the latter half of the century - beyond the model's own timeline. The figure below exposes this reality - adapting content from our new IEA briefing "Risky Wager" to include the 2019 SDS.

Of the four illustrative pathways that the IPCC features in its 1.5degC Special Report, the SDS still tracks between and, by 2050, even above the two pathways that depend on large-scale deployment of negative emissions technologies like bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) to limit temperature rise. The levels of BECCS sequestration assumed in the P3 pathway in 2100 could consume 25 to 46 percent of the world's arable plus permanent cropland.

Again, the IEA tries to mask the full potential scale of NETs reliance implicit in its claims about the SDS, providing an estimate of the "net negative" emissions required to align the SDS with 1.5degC and comparing that to IPCC scenarios. But what matters for the feasibility and sustainability of negative emissions technologies is their total (gross) deployment.

The IPCC illustrates this difference clearly by showing the total contributions of fossil fuels, land use, and BECCs in its P1 through P4 pathways, as seen in the figure below from its 1.5degC report. The IEA is only adding up the net balance below zero - it is not telling us what the total fossil fuel emissions or NETs quantities might be through 2100.

To illustrate this further, I dug into one scenario that is clustered near the SDS on the graphic the IEA provides comparing "net negative" emissions in the SDS to IPCC scenarios. The IEA claims the SDS would have -310 Gt of "net negative" CO2 emissions to stabilise temperature rise at 1.5degC. I looked at a nearby scenario that shows -239 Gt of "net negative" CO2 emissions to stabilise temperature rise at 1.46degC in 2100 (matching it with the "Poles Advance - Advance_2020_WB2C" scenario in the IPCC database).

When you look at the original IPCC data on cumulative NETs within that scenario, it assumes that BECCs and land uses like afforestation will suck more than 1,200 Gt of gross CO2 out of the atmosphere. This same scenario assumes more BECCS in 2050 (over 7 Gt) than the IPCC cites as within the limits of sustainability (0.5 - 5 Gt). In other words, the IEA could be masking upwards of 1,000 Gt of negative emissions, and ignoring ecological limits with its claims about the SDS.

We can't really say without more data - but that's precisely the problem. In essence, the IEA is using misleading scenario comparisons - and ignoring the temperature overshoot and sustainability risks emphasized by the IPCC - to make it appear like the SDS is more ambitious and more precautionary than it is in reality. The IEA admits "there are reasons to limit reliance on early-stage technologies for which future rates of deployment are highly uncertain," but appears to ignore its own advice.

Time to #FixTheWEO

The IEA will release the full WEO 2019 on November 13, and that will give us the full picture of what has changed or not. But from the IEA's preview materials, we already know this: The IEA is still failing, in 2019, to respond to climate emergency and steer energy decisions away from fossil fuels and towards the renewable future required to limit global warming to 1.5degC. And it's time for the IEA to step up or step aside. You can learn more, stay updated, and take action at

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