IEA: Net-zero by 2050 means ending fossil fuel expansion now

Putting the global energy system on track to net-zero by 2050 this decade would require just 1% of the money currently poured into the energy sector annually, the International Energy Agency (IEA) has stated. 

IEA: Net-zero by 2050 means ending fossil fuel expansion now

It is a conclusion noted in the Agency’s updated pathway to net-zero by 2050 for the energy sector, published today (26 September). The pathway is aligned with the Paris Agreement’s 1.5C trajectory and is an update on an initial version published in May 2021.

The initial edition stated that there must be no expansion of global oil and gas extraction capacity beyond that already agreed upon before the end of 2021. Today’s update reiterates this and also states that there should be no new coal mines or mine extensions, nor any new unabated coal-fired power plants.

In 2030, the IEA concludes, global fossil fuel demand would be 25% lower than today. Demand would then decline even more sharply; by 2050, it would be just 20% of current levels.

“Sequencing the increase in clean energy investment and the decline of fossil fuel supply is vital if damaging price spikes or supply gluts are to be avoided,” the IEA said in a statement.

Proper timing is also important to maintain energy security and to transition workers in high-carbon sectors to other, cleaner industries.

The IEA’s pathway entails clean energy spending tripling within a decade, to $4.5trn annually by the early 2030s. It is noted that this is equivalent to just 1% of the investment made in the energy sector annually at present.

A greater share of investment than at present will need to flow to emerging and developing economies to prevent them from pursuing development based on fossil fuels, the pathway notes.

There will also need to be a significant scaling of investment in energy efficiency. The IEA has previously said that the global rate of energy efficiency improvements will need to double this decade to lay the foundations for net-zero. This new pathway reiterates that.

IEA executive director Fatih Birol said the pathway sends a “very clear message” that “strong international cooperation is crucial for success”.

He added: “Governments need to separate climate from geopolitics, given the scale of the challenge at hand.

“With international momentum building behind key global targets such as tripling renewable capacity and doubling energy efficiency by 2030, which would together lead to a stronger decline in fossil fuel demand this decade, the COP28 climate summit in Dubai is a vital opportunity to commit to stronger ambition and implementation in the remaining years of this critical decade.”

COP28 begins on 30 November and will run for two weeks. Ahead of the summit, the G20 have vocally supported the IEA’s 2030 renewables goal but only shown tepid acknowledgment of its recommendations on improving energy efficiency and scaling back fossil fuel development.

Existing and emerging technologies

While the IEA’s pathway does state that unprecedented action will be needed to deliver a Paris-aligned global energy transition, it does highlight positive trends to date.

It outlines how the global rate of solar capacity additions is now aligned with net-zero by 2050, given a significant acceleration since 2021. The same is said of electric car and van sales.

It also notes how the falling cost of renewables and electric vehicles (EVs) has contributed to a lower cost estimate for the transition. Another key part of this has been soaring gas prices.

Additionally, the report highlights how many crucial low-carbon technologies have become commercially viable over the past two years. In 2021, the IEA’s conclusion was that technology options for delivering around half of the necessary emissions did not yet exist. That proportion has now fallen to 35%.

Birol said the pathway should not rely too heavily on technologies that do not yet exist at scale. He argued: “Removing carbon from the atmosphere is very costly. We must do everything possible to stop putting it there in the first place.”

The COP28 hosts, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), pressed at the previous COP for a final text that would enable fossil fuel exporting nations to invest in carbon capture as an alternative to investing in cleaner energies. Along with other producers, the nation advocated for a “phase down” of “fossil fuel emissions” rather than a phasing out of fossil fuels themselves.

UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres subsequently slammed this rhetoric and the COP28 organising team stated an intention to pursue a strong agreement on fossil fuels this winter.

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