Earlier this year a full-page colour ad appeared in the press: “Who is Fatih Birol playing for?” it asked, picturing the head of the International Energy Agency dressed in football garb. The advert, placed by climate pressure group Avaaz, highlighted the awkward position of the IEA, a group founded to protect the interests of oil-consuming countries, as it starts to plan for a world without fossil fuels.
But this week marked a turning point for the world’s most influential energy body as the IEA published a bombshell report on how to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 — a move that followed years of campaigning from investors, climate activists, and even its own member countries.
The Paris-based IEA is calling for a stop to new oil, gas and coal exploration but also for an end to the dominance of hydrocarbons. Energy investment needs to rise to $5tn annually by 2030, mostly in clean energy, up from $2tn today, it said. “Effectively they are calling time on the fossil fuel era,” said Mark Lewis, chief sustainability strategist at BNP Paribas Asset Management. “It is like the pub landlord ringing the bell for last orders.”
It is a drastic turnround since the days of the Arab oil embargo and the group’s formation in the early 1970s. Its mandate has been to ensure enough oil is on hand in case of supply disruptions such as the first Gulf war, after Hurricane Katrina and during the 2011 Libyan crisis.
But just as global governments and corporations are under pressure to tackle climate change, the IEA, too, has had to overhaul itself. “They’ve had to change because of the speed at which policymakers have decided to do something about global warming and because of the rapidly declining costs of renewable energy,” said Kingsmill
Bond at Carbon Tracker. “They have had to reinvent themselves.” What the IEA says matters. Its forecasts are used by oil companies to shape investment strategies, by governments to create energy policies and by stock market investors who want to understand the future.