The International Energy Agency Aims for Net-Zero by 2024

The agency has been talking about decarbonization for quite some time. Now it is putting what it preaches into practice.

Wind turbines and solar panels in remote landscape
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Whether it’s promoting building efficiency or pushing for renewables, the International Energy Agency (IEA) has been talking about decarbonization for quite some time. Now the agency is putting what it preaches into practice, announcing a near-term goal of reaching net-zero emissions as soon as 2024.

“The IEA is committed to helping all countries achieve their energy and climate goals, with our Roadmap to Net Zero by 2050 providing a narrow but achievable pathway to this critical goal," said IEA executive director Fatih Birol. "As I have pointed out repeatedly, it’s not enough to simply talk about net zero – you have to act. That’s what we’re doing by putting in place practical measures that follow the recommendations of our Roadmap. We are determined for the IEA to reach net zero by November 2024 – the 50th anniversary of the founding of our Agency.”

There is, of course, some justified skepticism in climate circles about "net-zero" goals. That skepticism is driven in part by the absurdity of oil companies aiming for net-zero, without giving up on actually selling oil. As I’ve argued before, however, there is significant variability in terms of credibility, and not all net-zero plans are created equal. 

In that sense, there’s much to like about the IEA announcement, which includes: 

  • Encouraging greater use of video-conferencing to reduce travel
  • Purchasing clean electricity for its offices
  • Tackling fugitive emissions from air conditioning
  • Making efforts to reduce employee commutes
  • Engaging with suppliers and contractors on addressing emissions from the goods and services they provide to the IEA

Given that it also includes a goal of reaching net-zero by 2024, it also avoids one of the significant pitfalls of many such plans—namely announcing goals that are so far out, that nothing needs to change in the interim. As one would expect, the agency is not expecting to reach absolute zero in just three years. That means there will be some use of offsets, which they say will be "of the highest quality."

I’m sure there will be those who dismiss the use of offsets and question the use of the term net zero. Yet if delivered on time, there’s no doubt that a plan like this will deliver significant real-world carbon savings that help move us all toward a lower carbon society. It will also be a working demonstration of one of the less-discussed reasons for climate advocates to reduce our carbon footprints: The fact that it adds credibility to our advocacy efforts. 

This is true of companies, it is true of organizations, and it is true of individuals too. While I have no time for gatekeeping and purity tests within the climate movement, there is something to be said for at least trying to line up our own actions with the systems-level reforms that we advocate for. 

We shouldn’t, for example, expect climate scientists to be eco-saints or live entirely carbon-free lifestyles. That said, it does undermine the message somewhat when studies show that climate scientists fly more than your average academic. The same is true of those of us living a reasonably comfortable, western lifestyle—the wealthier you are, the more carbon you emit. It doesn’t mean we should expect everyone to get to zero overnight. But if we want to encourage a society-wide shift to lower carbon living, then aligning our values with our behaviors may help to give us some leverage. 

In just one example of how such moves can help give weight to our words, check out how one Twitter user described the announcement: 

As I’ve said before, we don’t all have to do everything. Few of us will even do all we can. But we can start making changes, and we can use those changes to send messages out into the world. 

What’s your version of the IEA plan?