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Narrow path to net zero, but fossil fuels need to go now, notes the IEA

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Solar Farms required for net zero

It’s still possible for the global energy sector to reach net zero emissions by 2050, but it requires all fossil fuel projects to be scrapped from this year, says the IEA. 

In a new report, dubbed Net Zero by 2050: a Roadmap for the Global Energy Sector, the International Energy Agency explained that there was still a viable pathway to building a global energy sector with net zero emissions in 2050. However, it noted that the path was narrow and requires an unprecedented transformation of how energy is produced, transported and used globally

The starkest warning from the report is that climate pledges made by Governments to date would fall short of what is required to bring global energy-related CO2 emissions to net zero by 2050. That’s even if the pledges are fully achieved, which as explained in an episode of Powered On, doesn’t even feel realistic in the UK. 

How does the world meet net zero

But let’s for a second anticipate that all of the goals are met. What more does the world have to do to achieve a net zero energy system by 2050? 

The International Energy Agency has set out a roadmap of more than 400 milestones that we need to achieve to reach this net zero target. These include: 

  • No new investment in fossil fuel supply projects from today
  • No further investment decision for unabated coal plants
  • Ban on the sale of new internal combustion engine passenger cars by 2035
  • Net zero emissions target for global electricity sector by 2040
  • Annual additions of solar PV to reach 630 GW by 2030, and those of wind power to reach 390 GW
  • Ban gas boilers from 2025

“Our Roadmap shows the priority actions that are needed today to ensure the opportunity of net-zero emissions by 2050 – narrow but still achievable – is not lost. The scale and speed of the efforts demanded by this critical and formidable goal – our best chance of tackling climate change and limiting global warming to 1.5 °C – make this perhaps the greatest challenge humankind has ever faced,” said Fatih Birol, the IEA Executive Director. 

“The IEA’s pathway to this brighter future brings a historic surge in clean energy investment that creates millions of new jobs and lifts global economic growth. Moving the world onto that pathway requires strong and credible policy actions from governments, underpinned by much greater international cooperation.”

It’s possible for the world to follow the IEA’s roadmap, but it will be a mammoth task. For example, to reach the milestone of annual solar PV additions hitting 630 GW by 2030, it would require installing the world’s current largest solar park roughly every day. 

New technology needed

Most of the global reductions in CO2 emissions between now and 2030 in the net zero pathway come from technologies readily available today. But in 2050, almost half the reductions come from technologies that are currently only at the demonstration or prototype phase. This demands that governments quickly increase and reprioritise their spending on research and development – as well as on demonstrating and deploying clean energy technologies – putting them at the core of energy and climate policy. Progress in the areas of advanced batteries, electrolysers for hydrogen, and direct air capture and storage can be particularly impactful.

A transition of such scale and speed cannot be achieved without sustained support and participation from citizens, whose lives will be affected in multiple ways. Consumers around the world will have to undergo a behavioural shift

“The clean energy transition is for and about people,” said Dr Birol. 

“Our Roadmap shows that the enormous challenge of rapidly transitioning to a net zero energy system is also a huge opportunity for our economies. The transition must be fair and inclusive, leaving nobody behind. We have to ensure that developing economies receive the financing and technological know-how they need to build out their energy systems to meet the needs of their expanding populations and economies in a sustainable way.”

Providing electricity to around 785 million people who have no access to it and clean cooking solutions to 2.6 billion people who lack them is an integral part of the Roadmap’s net zero pathway. This costs around $40 billion a year, equal to around 1% of average annual energy sector investment. It also brings major health benefits through reductions in indoor air pollution, cutting the number of premature deaths by 2.5 million a year.

Total annual energy investment surges to USD 5 trillion by 2030 in the net zero pathway, adding an extra 0.4 percentage points a year to global GDP growth, based on a joint analysis with the International Monetary Fund. The jump in private and government spending creates millions of jobs in clean energy, including energy efficiency, as well as in the engineering, manufacturing and construction industries. All of this puts global GDP 4% higher in 2030 than it would reach based on current trends.

What does the future of the energy system look like?

According to the report, by 2050, the energy world looks completely different. Global energy demand is around 8% smaller than today, but it serves an economy more than twice as big and a population with 2 billion more people. 

Almost 90% of electricity generation comes from renewable sources, with wind and solar PV together accounting for almost 70%. Most of the remainder comes from nuclear power. Solar is the world’s single largest source of total energy supply. 

Fossil fuels fall from almost four-fifths of total energy supply today to slightly over one-fifth. Fossil fuels that remain are used in goods where the carbon is embodied in the product, such as plastics, in facilities fitted with carbon capture, and in sectors where low-emissions technology options are scarce.

“The pathway laid out in our Roadmap is global in scope, but each country will need to design its own strategy, taking into account its own specific circumstances,” said Dr Birol. 

“Plans need to reflect countries’ differing stages of economic development: in our pathway, advanced economies reach net zero before developing economies. The IEA stands ready to support governments in preparing their own national and regional roadmaps, to provide guidance and assistance in implementing them, and to promote international cooperation on accelerating the energy transition worldwide.”

Could 2021 be the defining year for climate change? 

Later this year, the UK will host the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26) of the United Nations Climate Change Framework Convention in Glasgow. The IEA’s report will be key to this year’s COP26, given it was requested by the UK Government. 

That means this latest report could pile pressure on those attending the climate conference to go further than they have previously pledged. Eyes will be on big polluter nations, such as China, India and the United States, to see if they will make any new pledges to achieve the IEA’s roadmap. 

COP26 President-Designate Alok Sharma, noted, “I welcome this report, which sets out a clear roadmap to net-zero emissions and shares many of the priorities we have set as the incoming COP Presidency – that we must act now to scale up clean technologies in all sectors and phase out both coal power and polluting vehicles in the coming decade.

“I am encouraged that it underlines the great value of international collaboration, without which the transition to global net zero could be delayed by decades. Our first goal for the UK as COP26 Presidency is to put the world on a path to driving down emissions, until they reach net zero by the middle of this century.”

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