Every year at this time, the International Energy Agency publishes its annual World Energy Outlook, which is the equivalent of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue for oil executives. That is, it incarnates their fantasies, especially the one about how this is an unchanging world, where attitudes and habits need not shift. Each year, the document forecasts a world in which fossil fuel continues to dominate for decades to come, and, because investors and governments often base their actions on those predictions, it’s almost literally the definition of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The problem, of course, is that the world it confidently imagines is an impossible one. If, as the I.E.A.’s current “sustainable development scenario” predicts, we don’t shut off the flow of fossil fuel until 2070, then the World Habitability Outlook, if there were such a thing, would be grim. (September, 2020, was the hottest September ever measured. That helped set the stage for, among many other novel forms of damage, the first Greek-letter hurricane ever to hit the United States and devastating wildfires in Paraguay, Argentina, and Bolivia.) The rational goal of the I.E.A. (a club of oil-consuming countries, first proposed by Henry Kissinger in the wake of the OPEC embargo of the nineteen-seventies) should be to model what science says we require to survive and then chart a path toward getting us there. And, this year, after intense pressure from activists, that began to happen. Along with the main report, the I.E.A. released a miniature scenario that tries to foresee a world in which we reach net zero by 2050. That’s still too slow to meet the climate targets set in Paris, in 2015, but at least it’s in the ballpark. Next year, the activists say, that nearer-term forecast needs to be the central event, not the kiddie table—taken seriously, such a scenario could be a crucial document as the world assembles in Glasgow a year from November for a critical round of talks about carbon cuts.
An I.E.A. report that took science as its starting point would not be revolutionary. In fact, there are signs that important parts of the world’s financial system are already beginning to get the message, thanks to unrelenting pressure. JPMorgan Chase, the world’s biggest fossil-fuel investor, this month committed to a “Paris alignment” of its lending practices. (Full disclosure: I was arrested in a Chase branch near the Capitol, in January, to help accelerate this campaign.) As activists point out, this vague target is barely a start. But the pressure won’t be going away: members of the Rockefeller family, whose forebears helped build Chase into the giant it is today, announced that they are rallying wealthy peers to prod the bank into more aggressive action, demanding that it “embrace innovation and move beyond the profits of fossil fuels to develop banking models that will excel in a zero-carbon world.” Some of the nations that constitute the I.E.A. are clearly ready for more: in the United Kingdom, Boris Johnson’s government noised around the idea that all of its home electricity could come from offshore wind by 2030. (A truly great idea, in part because, at the moment, too much of it is coming from burning wood pellets shipped over from the southeastern United States, which, as a new report makes clear, is a definitional example of environmental racism.)