IEA: Net-zero emissions goal requires ‘total transformation’ of energy systems

By Jack Burke18 May 2021

The world has a viable pathway to a global energy sector with net-zero emissions in 2050, but it will take “nothing short of a total transformation of the energy systems that underpin our economies,” the International Energy Agency (IEA) said in a special report.

“Climate pledges by governments to date – even if fully achieved – would fall well short of what is required to bring global energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions to net zero by 2050 and give the world an even chance of limiting the global temperature rise to 1.5° C”, according to the new report, Net Zero by 2050: a Roadmap for the Global Energy Sector.

The EIA said the report is the world’s first comprehensive study of how to transition to a net zero energy system by 2050 while ensuring stable and affordable energy supplies, providing universal energy access, and enabling robust economic growth.

Building on the IEA’s energy modeling tools and expertise, the Roadmap sets out more than 400 milestones to guide the global journey to net zero by 2050. These include, from today, no investment in new fossil fuel supply projects, and no further final investment decisions for new unabated coal plants. By 2035, there are no sales of new internal combustion engine passenger cars, and by 2040, the global electricity sector has already reached net-zero emissions.

The world has a viable pathway to building a global energy sector with net-zero emissions in 2050, but it is narrow and requires an unprecedented transformation of how energy is produced, transported and used globally, the International Energy Agency said in a landmark special report.

In the near term, the report describes a net zero pathway that requires the immediate and massive deployment of all available clean and efficient energy technologies, combined with a major global push to accelerate innovation. The pathway calls for annual additions of solar PV to reach 630 GW by 2030, and those of wind power to reach 390 GW. Together, this is four times the record level set in 2020. For solar PV, it is equivalent to installing the world’s current largest solar park roughly every day.

“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.”

Electricity generation

The fastest and largest reductions in global emissions in the plan are initially seen in the electricity sector. Electricity generation was the largest source of emissions in 2020, but emissions drop by nearly 60% in the period to 2030, mainly due to major reductions from coal-fired power plants, and the electricity sector becomes a small net negative source of emissions around 2040.

Solid, liquid and gaseous fuels continue to play an important role in the pathway to zero emissions, which sees large increases in bioenergy and hydrogen. Around 40% of bioenergy used today is for the traditional use of biomass in cooking: this is rapidly phased out in the NZE. Modern forms of solid biomass, which can be used to reduce emissions in both the electricity and industry sectors, rise from 32 EJ in 2020 to 55 EJ in 2030 and 75 EJ in 2050, offsetting a large portion of a drop in coal demand.

The use of low‐emissions liquid fuels, such as ammonia, synthetic fuels and liquid biofuels, increases from 3.5 EJ (1.6 million barrels of oil equivalent per day [mboe/d]) in 2020 to just above 25 EJ (12.5 mboe/d) in 2050. The supply of low‐emissions gases, such as hydrogen, synthetic methane, biogas and biomethane rises from 2 EJ in 2020 to 17 EJ in 2030 and 50 EJ in 2050, under the IEA’s scenario. The increase in gaseous hydrogen production between 2020 and 2030 would be twice as fast as the fastest 10-year increase in shale gas production in the United States.

A major worldwide push to increase energy efficiency is also an essential part of these efforts, resulting in the global rate of energy efficiency improvements averaging 4% a year through 2030 – about three times the average over the last two decades.

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 reprioritize 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, electrolyzers 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,” the report states.

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 US$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 US$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.

A changed landscape

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, according to the report. 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.

Coal demand declines by 90% to less than 600 Mtce in 2050, oil declines by 75% to 24 mb/d, and natural gas declines by 55% to 1750 bcm. 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.”

The special report is designed to inform the high-level negotiations that will take place at the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26) of the United Nations Climate Change Framework Convention in Glasgow in November. It was requested as input to the negotiations by the UK government’s COP26 Presidency.

“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,” said COP26 President-Designate Alok Sharma. “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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