May 18, 2021 - Energy & Environment

IEA analysis charts "narrow" pathway to Paris climate goal

A general view shows the photovoltaic solar pannels at the power plant in La Colle des Mees, Alpes de Haute Provence, southeastern France, on April 17, 2019.

Photovoltaic solar panels at the power plant in La Colle des Mees, Alpes de Haute Provence, southeastern France. Photo: Gerard Julien/AFP via Getty Images

The pathway for transforming global energy systems to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 is "narrow but still achievable" and demands unprecedented acceleration away from fossil fuels, an International Energy Agency report published Tuesday concludes.

Why it matters: It provides detailed analysis and estimates of what's needed for a good shot at limiting temperature rise to 1.5°C above preindustrial levels — the Paris Agreement benchmark for avoiding some of the most damaging effects of climate change.

Threat level: The IEA offers frank assessments of the closing window to keep 1.5°C in sight, but also data-backed arguments for why this immensely heavy lift is cost-effectively achievable.

  • Current national targets — even leaving aside the absence of policies to meet them — would still leave 22 billion tons of CO2 emissions in 2050, the IEA projects.
  • Global greenhouse gas emissions and fossil fuel consumption are nowhere near on pace for meeting a net-zero mid-century goal.
  • Emissions are rebounding strongly from the pandemic-fueled drop and "further delay in acting to reverse that trend will put net zero by 2050 out of reach."

The big picture: The first-time report uses a "hybrid modeling approach" to explore needed uptake of renewables, hydrogen and other tech.

  • It fuses methods from the IEA's annual long-term projections called the World Energy Outlook, and its Energy Technology Perspectives series that analyzes hundreds of technologies.

Key findings: "Beyond projects already committed as of 2021, there are no new oil and gas fields approved for development in our pathway," the report notes.

  • New coal mines or extensions are also inconsistent with the IEA's net-zero pathway.
  • Sales of new internal combustion engine cars would need to end by 2035.
Coal, oil and gas production in 2050 net-zero roadmap
Data: IEA; Chart: Axios Visuals

What's next: A lot of changes have to happen really fast to keep the narrow net-zero pathway open.

  • Energy efficiency would have to increase a lot. The net-zero pathway envisions 4% average annual improvements in energy intensity — that is, energy per unit of economic output — through 2030.
  • The report envisions annual additions of 630 gigawatts of solar photovoltaic generating capacity and 390 GW by 2030 — four times the record levels installed last year.

While the report is pretty clear-eyed about the difficulty of a net-zero pathway, one bright spot is the IEA's take on how much is possible with existing technology — at least in the medium term.

  • "Most of the global reductions in CO2 emissions through 2030 in our pathway come from technologies readily available today," the IEA states.
  • However, "in 2050, almost half the reductions come from technologies that are currently at the demonstration or prototype phase."

The bottom line: "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," IEA executive director Fatih Birol said in a statement.

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