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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.
Expand chart
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.

Go deeper

Ben Geman, author of Generate
Aug 25, 2021 - Energy & Environment

Schumer: Budget plan key to meeting U.S. goals under the Paris deal

Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Senate Democrats' spending and tax plan and the bipartisan infrastructure package would together cut greenhouse gas emissions almost enough to meet the U.S. pledge under the Paris Agreement, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said.

Driving the news: Schumer, in a new letter to Senate colleagues, said his office's analysis of the two proposals shows they would put the U.S. on track to cut emissions around 45% below 2005 levels by 2030.

Why 401(k) rollovers are so annoying

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

If you happened to change jobs recently, you may have tried to transfer your retirement account from your former employer into an Individual Retirement Account or your new employer's 401(k) plan. If so, you probably encountered a bureaucratic gantlet — and you're not alone.

Why it matters: Kludgey processes around retirement account transfers result in people losing track of their funds, giving up important tax advantages, or otherwise disadvantaging themselves and being less prepared for retirement.

The hard math behind America's labor shortage

Data: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Congressional Budget Office; Chart: Axios Visuals

Yes, the pandemic has created unusual temporary labor market dynamics. But in the bigger picture, the 2010s were a golden age for companies seeking cheap labor. The 2020s are not.

The big picture: In the 2010s, the massive millennial generation was entering the workforce, the massive baby bo0m generation was still hard at work, and there was a multi-year hangover from the deep recession caused by the global financial crisis.

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