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The IEA Comes up Short on Climate (Again)

International Energy Agency

By Greg Muttitt

The release of the World Energy Outlook (WEO) 2018 on Monday marked another missed opportunity for the International Energy Agency (IEA) to provide a roadmap to Paris success.

Governments and investors alike have been calling on the IEA to help guide them towards achievement of the Paris goals. Two years ago, the IEA itself proposed updating its climate scenario to match the ambition of the Paris goals, and also gave its updated scenarios a cameo in the WEO 2017.

The IEA has backtracked, however, removing any reference to the higher-ambition scenarios, or to the 1.5 degree Celsius (°C) goal. This comes just a month after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a powerful report showing both the critical importance of limiting warming to 1.5°C, and pathways for doing so.

Following a summer of particularly devastating climate impacts, with unprecedented heat waves across much of the world, the IEA has opted for promoting the energy status quo. And 11 months after the World Bank Group decided to end financing for oil and gas extraction, the WEO 2018 instead calls for expanded investment in oil, gas and even coal.

Memories of Leadership

The IEA has proven that it can be a leader in steering energy decisions towards achievement of climate goals. When it first published its "450 Scenario" (450S) in 2008, the IEA was ahead of the curve. That scenario—designed to give a 50 percent chance of keeping warming to 2°C above pre-industrial levels—reflected the goals of the more progressive governments at the time.

But climate science has since indicated that even 2°C is dangerous—reiterated in last month's IPCC report. It was for this reason that governments decided in 2015 to increase their ambition, committing in Paris to pursue efforts to keep warming to 1.5°C, and in any case to hold warming well below 2°C.

At first, the IEA seemed to take this on board, as we explained in a recent blog. In the 2016 edition of the WEO, the IEA recognized that the 450S was not in line with the new Paris goals. It proposed developing two new scenarios, one aiming for "well below 2°C" (WB2), and one for 1.5°C.

The German government commissioned and funded a full exposition of the WB2 Scenario, published in a stand-alone report in March 2017. Many hoped then that the 2017 WEO, published in November of that year, would use this work to update its ambition to reflect the Paris goals. It was not to be.

In WEO 2017, the IEA replaced the 450S with a new "Sustainable Development Scenario" (SDS), with the welcome addition of goals on energy access and air pollution. But on climate change, the SDS maintained the pre-Copenhagen ambition level of the 450S. As the graph shows, the emissions pathways of the scenarios were identical. WEO 2017 only briefly mentioned the WB2 Scenario, and did not mention the 1.5°C Scenario at all.

Now, the new 2018 edition of the WEO omits reference to the WB2 Scenario as well, and fails to address 1.5°C at all.

Missed Goals

The WEO 2018 states that the SDS "is fully aligned with the Paris Agreement's goal of holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C." That statement omits the other half of the Paris goals, which are in full:

Holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C.

As for the "well below 2°C" part of the goals, the IEA claims that the SDS will lead to 1.7 to 1.8°C of warming. But how can a different result arise from the same emissions pathway that led to a 2°C outcome in the 450S? The answer is that the IEA has changed its assumption about what happens after 2040, beyond the scope of its own scenarios.

The IEA makes the 1.7 to 1.8°C claim by comparing the SDS with scenarios that lead to that amount of warming. As the IEA's graph shows, those scenarios depend on large-scale use of negative emissions technologies later in the century—including technologies that have been considered in theory but never tried in practice. If achieving the Paris goals is predicated on the later availability of these technologies and they do not work out, emissions to that point will be irreversible and climate limits broken.

Previous editions of the WEO have warned that negative emissions are likely not feasible at this level: WEO 2016 stated, "Such a situation is vastly removed from the realities of the current energy system, and the prospect is remote from today's perspective." WEO 2017 also cautioned that "all such technologies face severe technical, economic and resource constraints." And climate scientists have expressed growing concerns about reliance on negative emissions, as discussed in our recent blog.

In contrast, the new WEO 2018 describes negative emissions technologies as one of the "important sectors for innovation," and gives no warning about the dangers of reliance on them.

World Energy Outlook 2018 youtu.be


All of this matters because, as the new WEO puts it, "Robust data and well-grounded projections about the future are essential foundations for today's policy choices." Scenario data and projections serve as a guide to the future, ideally to enable good decisions.

Without information about how to do it, it will be hard for governments to "pursue efforts" to keep warming to 1.5°C.

Investors too are increasingly using climate scenarios to test the robustness of their portfolios. They are vital tools for delivering the Taskforce on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures' recommendations and for the Climate Action 100+ initiative.

The new WEO states that:

Continued investment in oil and gas supply, however, remains essential even in the Sustainable Development Scenario to 2040, as decline rates at existing fields leave a substantial gap that needs to be filled with new upstream projects.

As Oil Change International's research has shown, investment in new oil and gas fields—beyond those that are already in operation—is not consistent with the Paris goals. The IEA is able to make the contrary claim for the SDS only because the SDS falls short of the Paris goals.

This is a crucial omission. Based on such projections, governments may continue licensing new oil and gas, locking in their future emissions, while failing to plan for an orderly just transition for workers. Investors may understate the risks associated with the energy transition, leading to future economic disruption.

More Fossil Fuels

The vast majority of WEO 2018, like in previous editions, is focused on the "New Policies Scenario" (NPS), which would lead to around 3°C of warming. By comparison, the SDS gets only one paragraph in the six-page summary.

The IEA has said before (in WEO 2017), if the future turns out like the NPS, "this will not be a sign of success," adding that, "Success for the WEO is about helping countries to achieve the long-term energy and related goals that they have chosen."

But since the NPS is so centrally promoted, it is the NPS that decision makers use as the default guide. As we showed in our Off Track report, the NPS' demand projections have been used by governments and investors to support damaging projects from Australian coal mines to Arctic oil drilling. This is why Oil Change International calls for the goals-based scenario—which the IEA says is the one it wants—to be made the central one in the WEO.

Furthermore, in the new WEO, the IEA repeatedly advocates for fossil fuel investment in line with the NPS. This investment will help create that very future that the IEA says it does not want. On oil:

Today's flow of new upstream projects appears to be geared to the possibility of an imminent slowdown in fossil fuel demand, but in the New Policies Scenario this could well lead to a shortfall in supply.

We estimate that around 16 billion barrels of new conventional crude oil resources would need to be approved each year between now and 2025 to avoid any potential "mismatch" between supply and demand. However, the average annual level of new resources approved in the three years since the oil price fall in 2014 was around 8 billion barrels. … The level of conventional crude oil approvals therefore needs to double if there is to be a smooth matching between supply and demand.

Much of today's media coverage can be expected to focus on the IEA's projection that (in the NPS) oil demand will not peak until after 2040. This narrative of ongoing future demand will also drive ongoing investment in more oil.

The same is true of gas: The WEO states that "building up infrastructure … requires conscious choices in favour of natural gas." It urges governments and companies "to ensure that adequate and cost-effective investment in new supply keeps gas as competitive as possible with other fuels," in other words reinforcing gas against competition from renewables.

Oil Change International research has found that there is no room for new gas development while achieving the Paris goals: Gas cannot be considered a "bridge fuel," as some claim.

Remarkably, the WEO also calls for increased investment in coal mining, especially in China and India, with $1 trillion of investment in new mining capacity over the period to 2040, as worldwide coal demand increases in the NPS until at least 2040: "Capital expenditures are needed along the value chain to sustain existing and to establish new mining operations, as well as to build railway and port infrastructure to connect new or expanding mining regions to coal importers."

Time to Change

Oil Change International believes the IEA has a significant opportunity for leadership, an opportunity that it regrettably missed in WEO 2018. It would in fact be easy for the IEA to become a climate champion by updating the SDS to match the Paris goals and by making that the central scenario in the WEO.

Decision makers—political and financial alike—are demanding the tools to implement their policy commitments and plan for success in a rapidly changing energy landscape. It is an opportunity that can't be ignored and, as the IEA faces increasing public pressure in 2019, calls for this increased ambition will only grow.

With time to spare to incorporate the IPCC Special Report, the mounting political and investor concerns, and the moral imperative of action on the heels of a year of devastating climate impacts, the 2019 WEO must step up high-profile ambition or risk becoming irrelevant in a world urgently demanding pathways to success.

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The patient in the case report (let's call him Tom) was 54 and in good health. For two days in May, he felt unwell and was too weak to get out of bed. When his family finally brought him to the hospital, doctors found that he had a fever and signs of a severe infection, or sepsis. He tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 infection. In addition to symptoms of COVID-19, he was also too weak to move his legs.

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What Is Guillain-Barre Syndrome?

Guillain-Barre syndrome occurs when the body's own immune system attacks and injures the nerves outside of the spinal cord or brain – the peripheral nervous system. Most commonly, the injury involves the protective sheath, or myelin, that wraps nerves and is essential to nerve function.

Without the myelin sheath, signals that go through a nerve are slowed or lost, which causes the nerve to malfunction.

To diagnose Guillain-Barre Syndrome, neurologists perform a detailed neurological exam. Due to the nerve injury, patients often may have loss of reflexes on examination. Doctors often need to perform a lumbar puncture, otherwise known as spinal tap, to sample spinal fluid and look for signs of inflammation and abnormal antibodies.

Studies have shown that giving patients an infusion of antibodies derived from donated blood or plasma exchange – a process that cleans patients' blood of harmful antibodies - can speed up recovery. A very small subset of patients may need these therapies long-term.

The majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients improve within a few weeks and eventually can make a full recovery. However, some patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome have lingering symptoms including weakness and abnormal sensations in arms and/or legs; rarely patients may be bedridden or disabled long-term.

Guillain-Barre Syndrome and Pandemics

As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the globe, many neurologic specialists have been on the lookout for potentially serious nervous system complications such as Guillain-Barre Syndrome.

Though Guillain-Barre Syndrome is rare, it is well known to emerge following bacterial infections, such as Campylobacter jejuni, a common cause of food poisoning, and a multitude of viral infections including the flu virus, Zika virus and other coronaviruses.

Studies showed an increase in Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases following the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, suggesting a possible connection. The presumed cause for this link is that the body's own immune response to fight the infection turns on itself and attacks the peripheral nerves. This is called an "autoimmune" condition. When a pandemic affects as many people as our current COVID-19 crisis, even a rare complication can become a significant public health problem. That is especially true for one that causes neurological dysfunction where the recovery takes a long time and may be incomplete.

The first reports of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in COVID-19 pandemic originated from Italy, Spain and China, where the pandemic surged before the U.S. crisis.

Though there is clear clinical suspicion that COVID-19 can lead to Guillain-Barre Syndrome, many important questions remain. What are the chances that someone gets Guillain-Barre Syndrome during or following a COVID-19 infection? Does Guillain-Barre Syndrome happen more often in those who have been infected with COVID-19 compared to other types of infections, such as the flu?

The only way to get answers is through a prospective study where doctors perform systematic surveillance and collect data on a large group of patients. There are ongoing large research consortia hard at work to figure out answers to these questions.

Understanding the Association Between COVID-19 and Guillain-Barre Syndrome

While large research studies are underway, overall it appears that Guillain-Barre Syndrome is a rare but serious phenomenon possibly linked to COVID-19. Given that more than 10.7 million cases have been reported for COVID-19, there have been 10 reported cases of COVID-19 patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far – only two reported cases in the U.S., five in Italy, two cases in Iran and one from Wuhan, China.

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Due to the pandemic and infection-containment considerations, diagnostic tests, such as a nerve conduction study that used to be routine for patients with suspected Guillain-Barre Syndrome, are more difficult to do. In both U.S. cases, the initial diagnosis and treatment were all based on clinical examination by a neurological experts rather than any tests. Both patients survived but with significant residual weakness at the time these case reports came out, but that is not uncommon for Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients. The road to recovery may sometimes be long, but many patients can make a full recovery with time.

Though the reported cases of Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far all have severe symptoms, this is not uncommon in a pandemic situation where the less sick patients may stay home and not present for medical care for fear of being exposed to the virus. This, plus the limited COVID-19 testing capability across the U.S., may skew our current detection of Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases toward the sicker patients who have to go to a hospital. In general, the majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients do recover, given enough time. We do not yet know whether this is true for COVID-19-related cases at this stage of the pandemic. We and colleagues around the world are working around the clock to find answers to these critical questions.

Sherry H-Y. Chou is an Associate Professor of Critical Care Medicine, Neurology, and Neurosurgery, University of Pittsburgh.

Aarti Sarwal is an Associate Professor, Neurology, Wake Forest University.

Neha S. Dangayach is an Assistant Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Disclosure statement: Sherry H-Y. Chou receives funding from The University of Pittsburgh Clinical Translational Science Institute (CTSI), the National Institute of Health, and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine Dean's Faculty Advancement Award. Sherry H-Y. Chou is a member of Board of Directors for the Neurocritical Care Society. Neha S. Dangayach receives funding from the Bee Foundation, the Friedman Brain Institute, the Neurocritical Care Society, InCHIP-UConn Center for mHealth and Social Media Seed Grant. She is faculty for emcrit.org and for AiSinai. Aarti Sarwal does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Reposted with permission from The Conversation.

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In a series of tweets Wednesday night, Ocasio-Cortez—the lead sponsor of the House Green New Deal resolution—noted that the Climate Task Force "shaved 15 years off Biden's previous target for 100% clean energy."

"Of course, like in any collaborative effort, there are areas of negotiation and compromise," said the New York Democrat. "But I do believe that the Climate Task Force effort meaningfully and substantively improved Biden's positions."


The 110 pages of policy recommendations from the six eight-person Unity Task Forces on education, the economy, criminal justice, immigration, climate change, and healthcare are aimed at shaping negotiations over the 2020 Democratic platform at the party's convention next month.

Sanders said that while the "end result isn't what I or my supporters would've written alone, the task forces have created a good policy blueprint that will move this country in a much-needed progressive direction and substantially improve the lives of working families throughout our country."

"I look forward to working with Vice President Biden to help him win this campaign," the Vermont senator added, "and to move this country forward toward economic, racial, social, and environmental justice."

Biden, for his part, applauded the task forces "for helping build a bold, transformative platform for our party and for our country."

"I am deeply grateful to Bernie Sanders for working with us to unite our party and deliver real, lasting change for generations to come," said the former vice president.

On the life-or-death matter of reforming America's dysfunctional private health insurance system—a subject on which Sanders and Biden clashed repeatedly throughout the Democratic primary process—the Unity Task Force affirmed healthcare as "a right" but did not embrace Medicare for All, the signature policy plank of the Vermont senator's presidential bid.

Instead, the panel recommended building on the Affordable Care Act by establishing a public option, investing in community health centers, and lowering prescription drug costs by allowing the federal government to negotiate prices. The task force also endorsed making all Covid-19 testing, treatments, and potential vaccines free and expanding Medicaid for the duration of the pandemic.

"It has always been a crisis that tens of millions of Americans have no or inadequate health insurance—but in a pandemic, it's potentially catastrophic for public health," the task force wrote.

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, a former Michigan gubernatorial candidate and Sanders-appointed member of the Healthcare Task Force, said that despite major disagreements, the panel "came to recommendations that will yield one of the most progressive Democratic campaign platforms in history—though we have further yet to go."


Observers and advocacy groups also applauded the Unity Task Forces for recommending the creation of a postal banking system, endorsing a ban on for-profit charter schools, ending the use of private prisons, and imposing a 100-day moratorium on deportations "while conducting a full-scale study on current practices to develop recommendations for transforming enforcement policies and practices at ICE and CBP."

Marisa Franco, director of immigrant rights group Mijente, said in a statement that "going into these task force negotiations, we knew we were going to have to push Biden past his comfort zone, both to reconcile with past offenses and to carve a new path forward."

"That is exactly what we did, unapologetically," said Franco, a member of the Immigration Task Force. "For years, Mijente, along with the broader immigrant rights movement, has fought to reshape the narrative around immigration towards racial justice and to focus these very demands. We expect Biden and the Democratic Party to implement them in their entirety."

"There is no going back," Franco added. "Not an inch, not a step. We must only move forward from here."

Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.