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Biden presidency to create 'big momentum' on tackling climate change: IEA's Birol


China emissions, as well as oil and gas consumption, to rise this year

US rejoining Paris agreement set to galvanize global efforts

COVID-19 won't mean peak oil demand without government action

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The election of Joe Biden to the US presidency and his commitment to rejoining the Paris Agreement will create a "tremendous momentum" to fight climate change and will likely lead to a "big push" for technological innovation in the area, International Energy Agency executive director Fatih Birol said Nov. 25.

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Speaking at an online Autumn Conference organized by Norway's Equinor, Birol warned that despite COVID-19, China is set to produce more emissions this year than in 2019, as it leads the recovery from the pandemic.

China is set to increase both its oil and gas consumption this year, with gas consumption much higher due to industrial use and due to efforts to counter air pollution, Birol said. The IEA's latest oil market report projects China's oil demand will increase by 100,000 b/d this year to 13.8 million b/d, and to 14.6 million b/d in 2021.

Birol described this as "proof" the pandemic and recent collapse in demand did not mean oil demand globally had peaked for the long term. Demand is likely to return to pre-pandemic levels without "bold measures" by governments to intensify the energy transition, he said.

However, Birol said the change in US energy policy, with Biden set to reverse his predecessor Donald Trump's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on climate change, was cause for optimism, with other countries likely to get behind the struggle.

"For the first time in a long time I feel optimistic about the future of the fight against climate change. I see a political momentum globally emerging," Birol said.

The US rejoining the Paris Agreement "would create a tremendous momentum for the fight against climate change. The US is one of the architects, perhaps the main architect of the Paris Agreement and still the second largest emitter [and] very important economic and political player in the world. This will create a huge political momentum," he said.

"We are working almost every day with different ministers from China, to colleagues in [Washington] DC, to colleagues in Brussels, India and elsewhere -- so a political momentum is emerging, and there is a will. In the past there was not a will."

"Many technologies we need are becoming cheaper, such as renewables, and some of the governments, other stakeholders, industries -- even though they may not be a big fan of the fight against climate change -- in order to position their economies, their business portfolios, they are pushing green energy technology-related investments."

He added that US technological innovation was likely to play an important role as countries, including several in Western Europe, pledge to achieve net zero emissions by 2050.

"50% of the emissions to reach net zero in 2050 need to come from technologies that are not commercially available. The US has been the leader of innovation and therefore I expect the next US administration will give a big push to clean energy innovation, ranging from Carbon Capture Utilization and Storage to small modular reactors for nuclear, from there to battery storage, from battery storage [to] hydrogen and others," he said. "This innovation push from the US will be valuable."

Norwegian contribution

Birol praised Norway's contribution to tackling climate change, noting that although it is Western Europe's largest oil and gas exporter, the country in its own right is "almost completely decarbonized" -- a reference to Norwegian renewable power and widespread use of electric vehicles.

Norway, with Shell and Total, is developing a pilot project aimed at capturing CO2 from cement manufacturing, waste incineration and potentially other industrial processes, and storing it beneath the North Sea.

Petroleum and energy minister Tina Bru highlighted Norway's build-out of offshore wind generation, including to supply power to offshore oil and gas facilities, as well as its steps in areas such as hydrogen and seabed mineral mining.

"We have now the opportunity to produce blue hydrogen, mainly also because of the Carbon Capture and Storage project, now that we have this storage," Bru said. "That opens up many new doors. We're going to need hydrogen on a large scale globally to be able to reach our goals under the Paris Agreement."