Many energy experts and climate scientists doubt that limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century is possible. The world’s leading energy institution responded today.
The International Energy Agency stated in a 227-page analysis that it is conceivable to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 and limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. However, it will necessitate a complete overhaul of the worldwide energy system, which must begin immediately.
According to the IEA, to achieve a net-zero target by 2050, a drastic effort is necessary for the next decade. Whereas electric cars now account for 5% of worldwide car sales, they will be required to account for 60% of new vehicle purchases by 2030. Renewable energy installations, which reached a new high of 280 gigawatts last year, will need to approach 1,000 GW annually. Improvements in energy efficiency will need to rise at a pace of 4% per year, approximately three times the current rate.
Massive expenditures in technologies such as carbon capture, hydrogen electrolyzers, and bioenergy will be required to support these achievements. According to the agency, after 2030, they will be needed to clean up hard-to-green economy sections.
In a statement, IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol stated, “The scope and pace of the activities necessary by this vital and challenging goal—our best hope of fighting climate change and limiting global warming to 1.5° C—make this possibly the biggest challenge civilization has ever faced.”
The conclusions of the IEA are relevant on several levels. Academics, modelers for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and green think tanks have typically produced net-zero road maps. Greens have long chastised the International Energy Agency (IEA), founded in response to the 1973 and 1974 oil crises, for failing to record the growth of renewables adequately and for a cautious adoption of the energy transition.
In that sense, today’s study is an endorsement from the energy establishment, lending industrial legitimacy to the concept that emissions from the world’s energy system can be largely eliminated in the next three decades.
Kingsmill Bond, an energy strategist at Carbon Tracker, a London-based think tank investigating the economic effect of climate change, stated, “IEA analysis has been exploited to prop up the fossil fuel economy.” “It is incredibly significant that the IEA has come out with this report saying that change is possible.”
What is written in the report is equally essential. Many experts doubt that warming can be kept to 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2100. (Climatewire, June 5, 2020). The world’s dwindling carbon budget accounts for some of this pessimism. In comparison to pre-industrial levels, the world has already warmed by more than 1 degree Celsius.
Some of the skepticism originates from energy models that rely mainly on untested negative emission technologies to balance emissions from a wide range of industries. Many of the IPCC’s 1.5 C scenarios heavily emphasized negative emissions technology (Climatewire, Dec. 22, 2020).
However, the IEA’s net-zero approach makes minimal use of harmful emissions. According to experts, the shift is mainly due to the significant fall in renewable energy costs, which has allowed energy modelers to anticipate considerably deeper emissions reductions through the spread of wind and solar.
The paper also indicates that deploying massive quantities of currently commercial technologies, such as wind and solar in the power sector, electric cars in transportation, and heat pumps in buildings, can deliver a significant portion of the required emission reductions.
The rest, or somewhat less than half of the required emission reductions, will have to come from emerging technologies like hydrogen electrolysis and carbon capture.
However, possible is not the same as simple. According to the IEA, typical gasoline and diesel-powered automobiles will be phased out by 2035, while coal plants without carbon capture will be phased out by 2040. By 2050, 85% of all households will have to be zero-carbon, with electric heat pumps providing almost half of the heating requirement.
It might be much more difficult to green the industrial sector.
Between 2030 and 2050, the International Energy Agency forecasts that the world will need to build ten carbon-capture industrial plants, three hydrogen-fueled plants, and 2 GW of hydrogen electrolysis capacity (i.e., facilities capable of creating hydrogen using clean electricity). According to the agency, between 2000 and 2015, China developed an average of 12 industrial complexes every month.
“The research makes it obvious that the window to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 is short, but—and this is critical—still achievable,” said Costa Samaras, a Carnegie Mellon University professor who researches energy systems. “What the IEA is telling us here is that we need to deploy, deploy, deploy to meet our climate goals.”
It’s unclear if the globe is ready to take on the deployment task. In the past year, a slew of countries promised to reach net zero. According to the IEA, those agreements currently cover 70% of global emissions, but they are still insufficient to keep warming below 2 degrees Celsius by 2100.
Even if all of the promises were kept, the organization calculated that by 2050, there would be around 22 billion metric tonnes of CO2 emissions, resulting in a 2.1-degree increase in global temperature. In 2020, global fossil fuel emissions were 34 billion metric tonnes.
“While having this scenario on how we may meet the 1.5 C target is beneficial, it is also vital to underline that it would be a massive lift and would take much more political will starting tomorrow by governments all over the globe than has been demonstrated to date,” said Zeke Hausfather, a climate scientist and the director of the Breakthrough Institute’s climate and energy program.