07/03/2013 10:21 am ET Updated Sep 02, 2013

Bending the Global Temperature Rise Arc

The OECD's International Energy Agency (IEA) recent report focuses on the question of what to do about climate change realities.

IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven explains: "We recently passed a grim milestone with the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere topping 400 parts per million at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii. This is uncharted territory in the history of humans. While it does not represent a tipping point per se, that milestone is symbolic of our failure to respond adequately, and to fulfill our own national and international pledges to limit average global temperature increase to 2 degrees Celsius over the long term."

The science is clear that global climate change is occurring. That debate is over. How much can mitigation measures bend the arc on rising temperatures?

The IEA proposes four ways in its "4-for-2 degrees Celsius Scenario" strategy for countries to substantially reduce carbon pollution by 2020 that would make it possible in theory, at least, to eventually limit global temperature increases:

  • "Targeted energy efficiency measures in buildings, industry and transport account for nearly half the emissions reduction in 2020, with the additional investment required being more than offset by reduced spending on fuel bills.
  • Limiting the construction and use of the least-efficient coal-fired power plants delivers more than 20 percent of the emissions reduction and helps curb local air pollution. The share of power generation from renewables increases (from around 20 percent today to 27 percent in 2020), as does that from natural gas.
  • Actions to halve expected methane (a potent greenhouse gas) releases into the atmosphere from the upstream oil and gas industry in 2020 provide 18 percent of the savings.
  • Implementing a partial phase-out of fossil fuel consumption subsidies accounts for 12 percent of the reduction in emissions and supports efficiency efforts."

Let's focus first on energy efficiency because it's the best, fastest and cheapest approach to reduce carbon pollution. Energy efficiency ties together several of the IEA's climate change mitigation recommendations to transform our energy economy in ways that are less polluting and advance clean technological innovations.

The quiet revolution of energy efficiency technological improvements is flattening electricity demand in the United States. Refrigerators, air conditioners and many household appliances are more energy efficient, and, over time, people are replacing their older home equipment with newer, more efficient models. Commercial HVAC and lighting retrofits add more efficiency, and modern industrial pumps and motors use electricity more frugally. The emergence of high-efficiency LED lighting over the next five years is a game changer that can save businesses and people money, avoid waste and avoid pollution.

Policy advances and technological innovations are coming together. Federal and state appliance and equipment efficiency standards are saving people and businesses' money while reducing pollution. Consumer-funded investments through utilities' energy efficiency programs are achieving results. R&D labs are advancing technological innovations that drive more efficient devices and products to global consumer markets. Transferring and export these technology advances to developing countries can mitigate carbon pollution.

Energy efficiency is flattening demand in U.S. electricity markets, as shown by the recent PJM capacity market auction for 2016 in which prices dropped 60 percent over the prior year. That's having a sharp economic impact on potential coal plant retirements, which is another one of the IEA's policy goals.

The quiet revolution in energy efficiency and accelerating technological innovations can help to bend the temperature rise arc. Let's advance the public policies which go hand-in-hand with energy efficiency technological improvements to achieve climate change mitigation solutions.