We Must Ditch Fossil Fuels Now To Reach Net-Zero by 2050

Current efforts fall “well short of what is necessary to reach net‐zero emissions,” warns the IEA.

solar panels in Fujian

Moment/ Getty Images

The International Energy Agency (IEA) released a new report, Net Zero by 2050: a Roadmap for the Global Energy Sector, that calls for nothing less than "an unprecedented transformation of how energy is produced, transported and used globally." The landmark report warns that current global pledges fall “well short of what is necessary to reach net‐zero emissions globally by 2050.”

IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol says:

"Our Roadmap shows the priority actions that are needed today to ensure the opportunity of net-zero emissions by 2050 – narrow but still achievable – is not lost. 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."
Key Milestones
IEA

This is a radical proposal that will seriously rattle some cages. According to its milestones, there should be no more approvals of oil, gas, or coal developments from this moment forward. No new sales of natural gas furnaces and boilers from 2025 means changing the housing industry and building codes starting tomorrow.

One can imagine how this will play out in Texas and Alberta or where governments and industries are promising to go net-zero sometime around 2050. The IEA rudely points out that to get there, everyone has to start now.

It's not like these proposals are from a bunch of activist treehuggers: As Kate Anonoff reports for the New Republic, the IEA was "founded by Henry Kissinger to provide a geopolitical counterweight to OPEC. Environmentalists don’t even consider IEA particularly friendly to their cause." They are certainly pushing the envelope more than the U.S. government, where John Kerry, President Joe Biden’s climate envoy, avoids immediate action by claiming "50% of those [carbon] reductions are going to come from technologies that we don’t yet have."

The IEA, on the other hand, says "all the technologies needed to achieve the necessary deep cuts in global emissions by2030 already exist, and the policies that can drive their deployment are already proven." They are not waiting around to see what gets invented, but want the addition of 630 gigawatts of solar and 390 gigawatts of wind annually, which is four times as much as was added in the record year of 2020.

The IEA suggests that as we come out of the Covid-19 crisis, "it is essential that the resulting wave of investment and spending to support economic recovery is aligned with the net-zero pathway."

"Policies should be strengthened to speed the deployment of clean and efficient energy technologies. Mandates and standards are vital to drive consumer spending and industry investment into the most efficient technologies. Targets and competitive auctions can enable wind and solar to accelerate the electricity sector transition. Fossil fuel subsidy phase‐outs, carbon pricing and other market reforms can ensure appropriate price signals. Policies should limit or provide disincentives for the use of certain fuels and technologies, such as unabated coal‐fired power stations, gas boilers and conventional internal combustion engine vehicles."

Fossil Fuels Are Out, Renewables Are In

changes from oil to renewables
IEA

The IEA projects a huge decline in the fossil fuel industry, to one-fifth the size it is today, with what's left of it being used for industrial purposes such as making steel, or for chemical feedstocks such as plastics. It acknowledges the economic impact this will have in countries that depend on income from fossil fuels, but suggests that " the expertise of the oil and natural-gas industry fits well with technologies such as hydrogen, CCUS and offshore wind."

There will also need to be a massive increase in the production of critical minerals needed for electrification as solar and wind power replace fossil fuels.

changes in jobs
IEA

This is a massive reallocation of assets and employment—as many as 5 million jobs in the fossil fuel industries will be lost. Fourteen million jobs are expected to be created in new investments in clean energy, but the IEA recognizes they are often in different locations and require different skill sets.

Perhaps the most worrisome paragraph is in the report notes that "international cooperation is critical."

"Making net‐zero emissions a reality hinges on a singular, unwavering focus from all governments – working together with one another, and with businesses, investors and
citizens.
All stakeholders need to play their part. The wide‐ranging measures adopted by governments at all levels in the net zero pathway help to frame, influence and incentivise the purchase by consumers and investment by businesses.... Underpinning all these changes are policy decisions made by governments. Devising cost‐effective national and regional net zero roadmaps demands co‐operation among all parts of government that breaks down silos and integrates energy into every country’s policy making on finance, labour, taxation, transport and industry,"
emissions savings sources
IEA

Between now and 2030, most of the reductions in emissions will come from the tech we have on the shelf, including a far more rapid conversion to electric cars, more solar, and more wind. In the 2030-2050 phase, there is a lot of hydrogen and carbon capture and storage, but they are known if not entirely resolved.

But in the developed world, the IEA expects people will have to make behavioral changes, "such as replacing car trips with walking, cycling or public transport, or foregoing a long‐haul flight" which add up to 4% of emissions, that purple bar on the left in the graph above. Fully 55% of the emission reductions come from consumer choices "such as purchasing an EV, retrofitting a house with energy‐efficient technologies or installing a heat pump."

The report also notes the transition has to be fair and equitable, providing services to the 2.6 billion people who are underserved: "Emissions reductions have to go hand‐in‐hand with efforts to ensure energy access for all by 2030."

This is hard.

2030 targets
IEA

It's all pretty daunting. The report doesn't allow any fuzzy math or "we'll get there by 2050" excuses that we hear from oil companies, There are no zillions of acres of offsetting trees. In fact, there are no offsets at all.

It also has serious targets for 2030, which is coming up in the windshield awfully fast, not leaving a lot of time to do all these things—to build the generating infrastructure to power 60% of all the cars sold and the heat pumps powering every home that is built.

But far harder to imagine than any of the technical and physical things that have to be done are the political and societal adaptations that would have to be made. The cooperation of governments, businesses, investors, and citizens. The international relations. And, of course, the behavioral changes and acceptance by the public that they have to fix up their houses and give up their pickup trucks.

All this, just after we have seen how nations share vaccines or how citizens accept lockdowns and masks for the greater good.

In the very first paragraph of the report, Birol notes:

"We are approaching a decisive moment for international efforts to tackle the climate crisis –a great challenge of our times. The number of countries that have pledged to reach net‐zero emissions by mid‐century or soon after continues to grow, but so do global greenhouse gas emissions. This gap between rhetoric and action needs to close if we are to have a fighting chance of reaching net zero by 2050 and limiting the rise in global temperatures to 1.5 °C."

This is the problem: The time to act is now—not 2030 or 2050. And the gap between rhetoric and action just keeps getting bigger. It will be interesting to hear the reaction to this report from those governments, businesses, investors, and citizens.

View Article Sources
  1. "Net Zero by 2050." IEA, 2021.