May 18, 2021 - Energy & Environment

IEA: Path to net-zero emissions by 2050 "narrow but still achievable"

Coal, oil and gas production in 2050 net-zero roadmap
Data: IEA; Chart: Axios Visuals

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, a new International Energy Agency report concludes.

Why it matters: It provides a detailed analysis of what's needed for a good shot at limiting temperature rise to 1.5°C above preindustrial levels.

The stance on fossil fuels is striking. "Beyond projects already committed as of 2021, there are no new oil and gas fields approved for development in our pathway." The roadmap also envisions no new coal plants or mines.

  • Activists are quickly citing the report as they pressure major oil companies for more aggressive climate plans.
  • Oil Change International's Kelly Trout said governments, banks and oil majors "can no longer use the IEA as a shield to claim that their support for fossil fuel expansion is consistent with the Paris Agreement."

But plenty of oilfield activity would continue. Even in a world that moved away from oil very fast, IEA notes considerable investment is needed.

  • And its exclusion of "projects already committed as of 2021" from the definition of no new fields does some heavy lifting.
  • IEA's path sees oil demand shrinking at over 4% annually for the next three decades. But if all capital investment in producing fields stopped, supply would decline by over 8% annually.
  • "If investment were to continue in producing fields but no new fields were developed, then the average annual loss of supply would be around 4.5%...The difference is made up by fields that are already approved for development," it states.

The numbers and pace envisioned are staggering. Some big picture aspects of the roadmap include:

  • Annual additions of 630 gigawatts of solar photovoltaic generating capacity and 390 GW by 2030 — four times the record levels installed last year.
  • 4% average annual improvements in energy efficiency this decade.
  • Sales of new internal combustion engine cars would need to end by 2035.

The report is downbeat and hopeful at the same time. The immense scale of transformation IEA sees needed to keep 1.5°C in reach goes far beyond nations' current emissions targets.

  • And it's completely out of step with what's expected under existing policies.
  • IEA notes emissions are rebounding strongly from 2020's drop and "further delay in acting to reverse that trend will put net zero by 2050 out of reach."
  • But it also sees the massive expansion of clean energy required as a way to "create millions of new jobs and boost economic growth."
  • Most CO2 cuts needed through 2030 can occur with today's tech. However, "in 2050, almost half the reductions come from technologies that are currently at the demonstration or prototype phase."

One big question: That's whether IEA’s guidance will prompt nations to implement more aggressive policies and influence corporate investments.

Number of national net-zero pledges
Data: IEA; Chart: Axios Visuals

The report offers some helpful context for anyone watching the long-term net-zero emissions pledges increasingly common among governments.

The chart above notes that as of Q1 of this year, these targets cover over 70% of global CO2 emissions.

  • However, targets and policies aren't synonyms, and IEA cautions that "most pledges are not yet underpinned by near-term policies and measures."
  • Also, IEA finds that the largest number of pledges are "in policy documents" that are not legally binding.

Go deeper: IEA analysis charts "narrow" pathway to Paris climate goal

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