• IEA: World still has ‘narrow’ path to reach net-zero carbon by 2050
  • Newsletter
  • Donate
Clean energy journalism for a cooler tomorrow

IEA: World still has narrow’ path to reach net-zero carbon by 2050

Adding clean energy capacity at unprecedented rates and halting all fossil fuel investment could avert the worst climate change impacts — if governments can commit to action.
By Jeff St. John

  • Link copied to clipboard

The world can still reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 — but only if governments redouble their efforts, all fossil fuel investment is halted, and renewable energy capacity and infrastructure are added at unprecedented scale, according to a first-of-its-kind report from the International Energy Agency.

The IEA’s Net Zero by 2050 report underscores the growing understanding of just how narrow that path is, and how drastically the world’s energy production and consumption systems must change, to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius over the coming century. That’s the target the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has found must be achieved to avert the most catastrophic effects of global warming.

Reaching that goal will be perhaps the greatest challenge humankind has ever faced,” IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol said in a Tuesday statement. Over the next decade, $5 trillion must be invested in converting energy used for electricity generation, transportation, industry and buildings from fossil fuels to carbon-free sources. It will entail a colossal undertaking that will require far greater commitments from government and industry than have been made thus far. But it could drive massive economic growth in rich and poor countries alike, the report finds.

On the electricity front, solar power will need to reach 630 gigawatts and wind power 390 gigawatts by 2030, representing annual additions at four times the scale of the deployment record set in 2020. Annual investment in transmission and distribution grids to manage these renewable resources must triple from $260 billion today to $820 billion by decade’s end.

On the transportation front, sales of new internal combustion cars must end and be replaced by electric vehicles or other carbon-free models by 2035. Public EV charging points must grow from around 1 million today to 40 million in 2030, at a cost of about $90 billion. Manufacturing capacity for batteries for this EV fleet will need to grow from 160 gigawatt-hours to 6,600 GWh by 2030, or the equivalent of nearly 20 gigafactories being added each year.

Image credit: IEA

To make better use of these new energy sources, energy efficiency improvements must average 4 percent per year through decade’s end, roughly three times the rate achieved over the past two decades. And approximately $40 billion per year must be invested to bring electricity to about 785 million people and clean cooking solutions to about 2.6 billion people who lack access to those resources today.

Governments around the world are upping their commitments to reaching these decarbonization goals, including the United States with President Joe Biden’s pledge to cut nationwide carbon emissions in half by 2030. But today’s government climate pledges aren’t enough to achieve those goals, the report finds.

Moving the world onto that pathway requires strong and credible policy actions from governments, underpinned by much greater international cooperation,” Birol said. 

Image credit: IEA

Global financial institutions are also on the hook to cease all investments in oil, natural gas and coal, since expanding fossil fuel use is incompatible with IEA’s pathway to achieve net-zero carbon by 2050. By midcentury, natural-gas use will need to fall by about 55 percent and oil consumption by about 75 percent; coal must be reduced to a mere 1 percent of global energy production capacity.

All of this investment will push global gross domestic product (GDP) 4 percent higher than current trends predict by 2030 and create 14 million jobs in clean-energy-related fields, the report states. At the same time, nearly 5 million jobs will be lost, largely in fossil fuel industries and in communities supported by those industries, a situation that will demand careful policy attention to address the employment losses,” the report notes.

Image credit: IEA

The IEA’s pathway to this brighter future brings a historic surge in clean energy investment that creates millions of new jobs and lifts global economic growth,” Birol said in Tuesday’s statement. Moving the world onto that pathway requires strong and credible policy actions from governments, underpinned by much greater international cooperation.”

The changes by 2050 will be even more drastic, with global energy demand roughly 8 percent lower than today serving an economy about twice as large and supporting 2 billion more people. Renewables will serve 90 percent of electricity demand, with nuclear power making up most of the remainder, and fossil fuels will supply about one-fifth of total energy supply, down from 80 percent today.

And while the emissions reductions plotted through 2030 can be achieved with technologies that are commercially viable today, by 2050, almost half the reductions [will] come from technologies that are currently only at the demonstration or prototype phase,” according to the report. Those include cost-effective carbon capture and storage for remaining fossil-fueled resources, as well as hydrogen generated with low or no carbon emissions to serve hard-to-electrify sectors such as shipping and aviation and high-heat industrial processes like cement and steel manufacturing.

The main purpose of the report is to inform the upcoming 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26) of the United Nations Climate Change Framework Convention in Glasgow, Scotland, where world governments will take on the challenge of charting as rapid a path toward decarbonization as possible.

We must act now to scale up clean technologies in all sectors and phase out both coal power and polluting vehicles in the coming decade,” COP26 President-Designate Alok Sharma said in Tuesday’s statement. China and India, the world’s first- and third-biggest carbon emitters, respectively, have not yet committed to such a rapid shift, however, while the United States and the European Union, second and fourth in carbon emissions respectively, face challenging pathways to reaching their goals.

(Lead photo: NASA

Jeff St. John is director of news and special projects at Canary Media. He covers innovative grid technologies, rooftop solar and batteries, clean hydrogen, EV charging and more.