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The IEA set out a way ahead

The International Energy Agency's new Global Energy Roadmap sets a pathway to net zero carbon by 2050, with, by 2040, the global electricity sector reaching net-zero emissions. It wants no investment in new fossil fuel supply projects, and no further final investment decisions for new unabated coal plants. And by 2035, it calls for no sales of new internal combustion engine passenger cars. Instead it looks to ‘the immediate and massive deployment of all available clean and efficient energy technologies, combined with a major global push to accelerate innovation’. 

The pathway calls for annual additions of solar PV to reach 630 GW by 2030, and those of wind power to reach 390 GW. All in, this is four times the record level set in 2020. By 2050 it wants about 24,000 GW of wind and solar to be in place. A major push to increase energy efficiency is also seen as essential, with the global rate of energy efficiency improvements averaging 4% a year through 2030, about three times the average over the last 20 years. As a result of all this by 2050 ‘the energy world looks completely different. Global energy demand is around 8% smaller than today, but it serves an economy more than twice as big and a population with 2 billion more people.’

On the energy supply side, by 2050, ‘almost 90% of electricity generation comes from renewable sources, with wind and solar PV together accounting for almost 70%. Most of the remainder comes from nuclear power. Solar is the world’s single largest source of total energy supply. Fossil fuels fall from almost four-fifths of total energy supply today to slightly over one-fifth. Fossil fuels that remain are used in goods where the carbon is embodied in the product such as plastics, in facilities fitted with carbon capture, and in sectors where low-emissions technology options are scarce’.

In terms of the direct use of renewable energy, it rises from meeting about 10% of heating demand globally in 2020 to 40% in 2050, most of the extra being from solar thermal and geothermal.  While biofuels do prosper, direct renewables don’t do quite so well in transport. So their overall share in total final energy use is only 19% by 2050. But indirect use via electricity rises, with electrification accounting for 50% of total energy use.  So, overall, two-thirds of total energy supply in 2050 is from renewables. 

Given that renewables expand rapidly and fossil fuel use falls from around 80% of total energy supply to 20% in the net‐zero emissions scenario by 2050, there is less need for carbon dioxide removal (CDR) than in most other scenarios, though CCSU still plays a role. Hydrogen also plays a role in some sectors, though rather than green hydrogen from renewables, much of it initially seems to be blue hydrogen from fossil fuel and some maybe from nuclear- although, overall, given demand growth, while nuclear capacity doubles by 2050, it final energy share does not increase much. That led to some objections from the nuclear lobby, with it being claimed that nuclear needed to expand more. Instead, the IEA was relying too much on ‘uncertain, untested or unreliable’ technology.

For its part, on that issue, the IEA report summary says ‘most of the global reductions in CO2 emissions between now and 2030 in the net zero pathway come from technologies readily available today. But in 2050, almost half the reductions come from technologies that are currently only at the demonstration or prototype phase’. So it says ‘this demands that governments quickly increase and reprioritise their spending on research and development - as well as on demonstrating and deploying clean energy technologies – putting them at the core of energy and climate policy. Progress in the areas of advanced batteries, electrolysers for hydrogen, and direct air capture and storage can be particularly impactful’. 

U.S. Climate Envoy John Kerry had already relayed the suggestion that ‘50 percent of the reductions we have to make to get to net zero are going to come from technologies that we don’t yet have.’ And Bill Gates gad claimed that that solar, wind and batteries were not enough, so we need ‘miracle technologies’ to decarbonize our global economy. Commenting on this issue, Prof Mark Jacobson from Stanford University said it all depends on what you mean by ‘new’. Yes, we need to improve wind, solar, storage and transmission systems, but what was really being hinted at in these statements was that we need other completely new technologies- such as Small Modular Reactors, Carbon Capture systems and such like. He says we don’t need them: ‘we have 95% of the technologies we need today and the know-how to get the rest’: 

Even given its retention of nuclear, the new IEA scenario, with big fossil cuts, less carbon capture, and very rapid wind and PV growth, seems a step forward for the IEA, and it was generally welcomed by environmentalists and analysts.  However some still felt that, as in the past, the IEA was still being pessimistic about what could be achieved by renewables.  More pragmatically, there were some UK worries about the fast phasing out of gas heating, and, globally, some of the oil interests were none too happy. 

The IEA has sometimes previously been seen as more fossil-energy orientated. That clearly has changed. Indeed its scenario even seem to be more progressive than the 1.5 C scenario from the IPCC, with, as Carbon Brief’s Simon Evans noted, much lower fossil fuel use (120EJ in 2050 v 184), lower energy use (344EJ v 404), higher wind/solar share (70% v 53%), less CCS (7.6Gt v 8.4) and less BECCS ( 1.9Gt v 4.5). Indeed, as the IEA itself points out, its net zero energy pathway ‘has the lowest level of energy-related CDR and bioenergy of any scenario that achieves net-zero energy sector and industrial process CO2 emissions in 2050’.

It may still fall well short of the full ‘100% of all energy from renewables’ by 2035 goal some look to, but it is getting there, aiming for zero net carbon electricity by 2035 and then 2/3rd of all energy from renewables by 2050.  With renewable costs still falling, maybe the next iteration of the IEA pathway will be even more positive. Indeed, even in this one, there is an attempt to see what would be needed, if, horror of horrors, nuclear and fossil CCS could not be relied on for power supply. Along with 450 GW more energy storage, it calculates that by 2050 there would be a need for an extra 2,400 GW of wind and solar, i.e. around 10% more. Is that impossible?

*I will not be posting next week, but will be back after that with an update on heat pumps 


  1. Not enough solar for Rystad!


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