Now we can have a genuinely global energy body

Group photo of energy ministers at the IEA Ministerial, Nov 2017
Energy ministers at the IEA Ministerial, Nov 2017. Photograph: Andrew Wheeler

While the 23rd Conference of the Parties (COP23) has been going on in Bonn, another international meeting – also significant for climate change and environment issues – took place in Paris. Neil Hirst, Senior Policy Fellow at the Grantham Institute, explains why the International Energy Agency’s Ministerial Meeting was an important step forwards for climate change mitigation.  

While talks continue at this year’s climate summit in Bonn, energy ministers who met last week in Paris have taken a step that may, ultimately, turn out to be just as important for efforts to avert climate change. They asked the secretariat of the International Energy Agency (IEA) to “analyse options for paths to eventual membership [for emerging economies]”. It doesn’t sound much, but it’s a step that could transform the way governments cooperate on energy policy, and action on climate change.

Globally, energy consumption causes a huge amount of greenhouse gas emissions. Government policies can influence this – as we have seen recently in the UK, where a carbon tax has helped to significantly reduce carbon emissions from generating electricity. However, in developing countries, emissions are expected to increase as their economies grow. These countries will need the help of the developed world to pursue low-emission pathways to economic growth – cooperation between rich and poor countries on energy policy will be vital for achieving climate objectives, such as the Paris Agreement target to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius, or preferably 1.5 degrees.

In this context, it is an extraordinary and depressing fact that the main international body in this field, the IEA, still specifically excludes developing nations from membership – for now.

The IEA is best known for its annual World Energy Outlook, which charts a range of possible energy futures and is the reference point for energy specialists the world over. But the IEA is also the place where ministers and senior officials confer and compare energy policies. It is where governments work together to achieve their common objectives for environmental protection, security, affordability, and access. And it fosters a network of more than 40 international collaborations on all the main energy technologies. The IEA’s high powered secretariat issues guidelines and promotes best practices for energy policy.

The IEA has immense potential for linking rich and poor countries in their endeavours to mitigate climate change. But this is not going to happen while developing countries remain excluded from full membership. That is why last week’s decision, even though only a first step, is so important. The Grantham Institute, working together with China’s Energy Research Institute (ERI) of the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), has been a part of the debate leading up to this decision – details of our work and the reports we submitted are available on the Grantham Institute website.

For a number of years, the IEA has been working on building closer relations with major developing countries, such as China, India, Indonesia. These countries, together with Thailand, Morocco, and Singapore, have joined an Association with the IEA. This has been a useful step, but it still falls short of full membership, which is needed to confer voting rights and secure membership of the IEA’s Governing Board.

The issue of membership for developing countries is now firmly on the IEA’s agenda and, by mandating the secretariat to consider “paths to eventual membership”, energy ministers have created a process for taking it forward. Under the progressive leadership of Dr Fatih Birol, the secretariat can be relied upon to follow up energetically.

Decisions are now in the hands of the 29 developed countries that already belong to the IEA, who sit as its Governing Board. Understandably, there will be caution. They will want to understand the full implications of the change and they will be determined to maintain the credentials of the IEA as a fact based analytical body that flies below the radar of political controversy. There are technical issues in reconciling wider IEA membership with the terms of the original IEA Treaty of 1974.  But these are not insuperable.

Hopefully the plans for wider membership will be ready for IEA Ministers to implement when they next meet in 2019.  Then, the door will be open for developing countries to apply. Having a genuinely global body for intergovernmental cooperation on energy policy – including action on climate change – will be a big prize. There are challenges and there will be questions. But, now that a process has been set in hand, I am optimistic that, as they say in football, we can get a result!


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