• IEA publishes “most technically feasible, cost‐effective and socially acceptable” pathway to 2050 net-zero carbon dioxide emissions

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      Patrick Lavery

      Combustion Industry News Editor

The International Energy Agency has released its roadmap for how the global energy sector could achieve net-zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050, an analysis full of challenging conclusions amounting to “nothing less than a complete transformation of how we produce, transport and consume energy”. The roadmap, an effort of dozens of authors and scores of peer reviewers, as well as modellers, contains more than 400 milestones, and is driven by the idea that “growing political consensus on reaching net zero is cause for considerable optimism about the progress the world can make, but the changes required to reach net‐zero emissions globally by 2050 are poorly understood”. With the energy sector being responsible for about three-quarters of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, it is obviously key to mitigating the worst of climate change, and the measures laid out in the report are the IEA’s “most technically feasible, cost‐effective and socially acceptable” take on meeting net zero. Within the roadmap, however, there is scope for differentiation amongst countries, with the foreword acknowledging that “each country will need to design its own strategy, taking into account its specific circumstances. There is no one‐size‐fits‐all approach to clean energy transitions.”

One curiosity of the report is that the roadmap itself is focussed on reducing carbon dioxide emissions, rather than all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, to net zero by 2050. The reasoning is that “achieving net‐zero CO2 emissions from the energy sector by 2050 is consistent with around a 50% chance of limiting the long‐term average global temperature rise to 1.5 °C without a temperature overshoot”. The report does include coverage of how the scenario also aims to “minimise” methane emissions, and there are estimates of how much methane emissions might fall as a result of the measures outlined. Making the target net zero for CO2 only may be for practicality, or because CO2 acts as a reasonable proxy for other GHGs in the energy sector.

Sitting behind the report is a hybrid model the IEA has developed from three existing ones – the World Energy Model, which simulates market forces, the Energy Technology Perspectives model, which projects the development of technologies, and the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis’s Greenhouse Gas ‐ Air Pollution Interactions and Synergies model, which “is used to evaluate air pollutant emissions and resultant health impacts linked to air pollution”. A fourth model was also used to “provide data on land use and net emissions impacts of bioenergy demand”. This suggests a highly sophisticated model, but also a myriad of assumptions.

Amongst the stand-out aspects of the report are the following:

  1. An assumption of providing electricity, by 2030, to the ~785 million people that currently do not enjoy access to electricity. (This has co-benefits of reducing indoor pollution.)
  2. A huge scale-up in wind and solar power generation capacity, reaching 630 GW of solar photovoltaics and 390 GW of wind per year by 2030, four times the record set in 2020. The 2030 rate for solar would be the equivalent of adding what is currently the world’s largest solar park roughly every day.
  3. Energy intensity having to improve by 4% on average until 2030, about three times the average over the last two decades.
  4. Sales of electric vehicles reaching 60% of new vehicles by 2030 (from the present ~5%), and by the same timeframe, all new buildings being zero-carbon ready.
  5. The technologies to achieve steep cuts in emissions by 2030 already exist; this is a clever way of allowing time for the development of other technologies for meeting the 2050 target. These include “advanced batteries, hydrogen electrolysers, and direct air capture and storage”, as well as the transport infrastructure around them (such as pipelines); it appears as though the IEA assumes that carbon capture and storage from industry is already more-or-less proven, which is true, though much needs to be improved, especially in terms of cost. For the 2050 target, “almost half the reductions come from technologies that are currently at the demonstration or prototype phase”, the share being higher for heavy industry and long-distance transport.
  6. Research and development spending should increase by more than three times that currently allocated to 2030.
  7. Huge reductions are to come from people buying new things: “around 55% of the cumulative emissions reductions in the pathway are linked to consumer choices such as purchasing an EV, retrofitting a house with energy‐efficient technologies or installing a heat pump. Behavioural changes, particularly in advanced economies – such as replacing car trips with walking, cycling or public transport, or foregoing a long‐haul flight – also provide around 4% of the cumulative emissions reductions.”
  8. By the 2030 stage, it is estimated that around 5 million jobs would have been lost in the fossil fuel sector, while 16 million would have been gained elsewhere in the broader energy sector. The report states this must be handled with care, and suggests retraining, regional aid, and locating new facilities and infrastructure as much as possible in the areas where job losses occur. The last of these suggestions is probably the strongest; studies into retraining have shown they are often not effective, as people are tied to places by their families, friends, and communities.
  9. By 2050, global energy demand would be ~8% smaller than today (serving a population of 2 billion more people), with two-thirds of supply coming from wind, solar, bioenergy, geothermal and hydro energy. “Solar PV capacity increases 20‐fold between now and 2050, and wind power 11.” Fossil fuels, largely abated by carbon capture and storage, supply one-fifth of energy by 2050, mostly for heavy industry. Oil is still used for the manufacture of plastics.
  10. Electricity would account for 50% of total energy consumption by 2050, 90% of it coming from renewable sources, most of the rest being from nuclear, a tiny portion being from carbon dioxide-abated fossil fuels.
  11. “No additional new final investment decisions should be taken for new unabated coal plants” and “no new oil and gas fields approved for development; no new coal mines or extensions” after 2021. This is highly difficult to see occurring for some nations; the IEA hope is that producers will focus solely on output from existing fields and mines. But as the report itself states, although structural reforms to such economies might help, along with new sources of revenue, “these are unlikely to compensate fully for the drop in oil and gas income”. A virtual G7 meeting in the days immediately after the release of the IEA report saw ministers agree to deliver climate targets in line with the 1.5 oC target, and the attendees were said to be heavily influenced by the IEA report. However, their statement on fossil fuels was that they would “phase out new direct government support for carbon-intensive international fossil fuel energy,” which might be something but it is not even close to a ban on approving new fields, mines, or even coal plants after the end of this year.
  12. “Every month from 2030 onwards, ten heavy industrial plants are equipped with CCUS, three new hydrogen‐based industrial plants are built, and 2 GW of electrolyser capacity are added at industrial sites.” By 2035, around 4 gigatonnes of CO2 are being captured by industry and direct air capture; this rises to 7.6 gigatonnes by 2050.
  13. Gas demand is to fall 55% by 2050, and oil demand by 75%.

Head of the IEA, Dr Fatih Birol, said of the report that it is “one of the most important and challenging undertakings in the IEA’s history”. This is undoubtedly true, and the conclusions and insights are well worth reading in detail. Unfortunately, one is inclined to conclude that something quite close to the pathway presented is not going to happen, because oil and gas fields and coal mines will continue to be opened by those nations that depend on them, and ramping up research and development spending by three or four times is unlikely to be enacted, as the magnitude of the increase is very high, and the fruit of such R&D is not in sync with election cycles. Following this, for the 2050 target much will depend on the development of technologies over the next two decades, making its achievement look unlikely. In summary, while the pathway might be the “most technically feasible, cost‐effective and socially acceptable”, it seems to remain politically infeasible, tripped up by the individual concerns of nations. Some of the targets – such as the rate of addition of renewables this decade – also seem to require a level of speed in implementation that would require supreme levels of planning and coordination to be successful.

However, achieving even a resemblance to the pathway would be extremely valuable, and will be something highly worthwhile to work on for the decades to come. The alternatives are all worse. It may be, too, that other opportunities for mitigation of and adaptation to climate change also arise in the medium term.