IEA Report Advises Shutting Out Fossil Projects Now, To Reach 1.5C Target

The International Energy Agency (IEA), one of the premier energy modeling agencies and until recently, a key backer of the perception that fossil fuel’s still have a future (of sorts), has finally changed track.

In a recommendation that will surprise many people, and please even more who have been calling for the same, the agency says that all future fossil fuel projects must be scrapped if the world is to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 and to stand any chance of limiting warming to 1.5C.

In its  special report, titled ‘Net Zero by 2050: a Roadmap for the Global Energy Sector’,  made for negotiators at the crucial COP26 climate summit in Glasgow in November, the IEA has made the case for a  2040 deadline for the global energy sector to achieve carbon neutrality.

Something it needs to consider considering the sharp decline that is imminent in fossil fuel consumption, according to the report. The special report has been described by the IEA as the world’s first comprehensive study of how to transition to a net zero energy system by 2050 while ensuring stable and affordable energy supplies, providing universal energy access, and enabling robust economic growth. It sets out a cost-effective and economically productive pathway, resulting in a clean, dynamic and resilient energy economy dominated by renewables like solar and wind instead of fossil fuels.

The IEA recommendations and predictions come at a time when the agency seems to be keen to shake off the widely held accusation of being too conservative on renewable energy growth. Over the past  decade, it has had to repeatedly up estimates on the growth and contribution of renewable energy, especially solar. The report makes up somewhat, with its transition pathway that call for annual additions of solar PV to reach 630 gigawatts by 2030, and those of wind power to reach 390 gigawatts. Together, this is four times the record level set in 2020. For solar PV, it is equivalent to installing the world’s current largest solar park roughly every day. A major worldwide push to increase energy efficiency is also an essential part of these efforts, resulting in the global rate of energy efficiency improvements averaging 4% a year through 2030 – about three times the average over the last two decades.

Present climate pledges by governments seem to be well short of what is required to bring global energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions to net zero by 2050, considered the bare minimum to give the world a fair chance of limiting the global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees celsius,

Besides setting out possible pathways that can help achieve its recommendations, the report also examines uncertainties in key areas that have been touted as possible solutions, from bioenergy, to carbon capture and behavioural changes in reaching net zero. These options, by putting bets on technology advances well into the future, are widely seen as one way to kick the can down the rad, when it comes to making the hard decisions needed to mark decisive action.

IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol, speaking on the launch, said that “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 degrees celsius – make this perhaps the greatest challenge humankind has ever faced,”.

Using the IEA’s energy modelling tools and expertise, the roadmap sets out more than 400 milestones to guide the global journey to net zero by 2050.  these include zero new sales of new internal combustion engine passenger cars by 2035, and achieving net zero emissions for the global electricity sector by 2040. By stopping all further investment into the coal and other fossil fuel powered development.

The report, while ambitious in its recommendations, and hopefully more pragmatic in its suggestions on getting there, faces a tough environment, exacerbated by the Covid pandemic since 2020. While developing countries that have already invested in fossil fuel projects, existing and in the pipeline, are loathe to make major shifts due to to sunk costs and the urgency of energy access, developed countries have followed a variety of ad hoc decisions to show their intent. Some of these have been of questionable  logic, such as shutting down nuclear power plants and replacing the gaps they leave with gas fired power, for example, as seen in the recent Indian point closure in the US.

Others like China, seemingly oblivious to global opinion and its new role as a country of influence worldwide, especially in Africa and other developing regions, have powered ahead with selling and financing thermal power plants, defying all long term predictions. Even as it takes strong action domestically to clean up.

In the IEA’s ideal future, providing electricity to around 785 million people who have no access to it and clean cooking solutions to 2.6 billion people who lack them is an integral part of the Roadmap’s net zero pathway. This costs around $40 billion a year, equal to around 1% of average annual energy sector investment. It also brings major health benefits through reductions in indoor air pollution, cutting the number of premature deaths by 2.5 million a year.

Total annual energy investment surges to USD 5 trillion by 2030 in the net zero pathway, adding an extra 0.4 percentage points a year to global GDP growth, based on a joint analysis with the International Monetary Fund. The jump in private and government spending creates millions of jobs in clean energy, including energy efficiency, as well as in the engineering, manufacturing and construction industries. All of this puts global GDP 4% higher in 2030 than it would reach based on current trends.

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. Almost 90% of electricity generation comes from renewable sources, with wind and solar PV together accounting for almost 70%.

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Prasanna Singh

Prasanna has been a media professional for over 20 years. He is the Group Editor of Saur Energy International