By Diana M. Gastelum
Communications Intern with MN350

The following blog post summarizes a roadmap provided by the International Energy Agency focused on net-zero carbon emissions. At MN350, it is our position that net zero doesn’t adequately address the climate crisis and in many instances is used to allow polluting industries to carry on with business as usual on the promise of future offsets or technology that doesn’t yet exist. To truly solve the climate crisis, we must not achieve net-zero, but focus on the virtual elimination of emissions. And we believe it can be done with technology we have today by moving away from extractive fossil fuels toward a renewable future with justice at its core.

The debate on achieving a net-zero world continues. In May, the International Energy Agency (IEA) published a special report titled Net Zero by 2050: A Roadmap for the Global Energy Sector. The 227-page report, also known as Scenario 1.5C, details a pathway to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. The agency makes it clear that to achieve this scenario, drastic changes in the global energy sector would have to be implemented. In addition, the World Economic Forum highlights that to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, three crucial areas would include technology innovation, policy change, and generating demand.

The IEA has been one of the most influential agencies in the energy sector since its establishment to aid the oil crisis in 1973–1974. The agency has had a say in investments in oil, coal, and gas and was perceived to undermine renewable energy. As a result, this report can be seen as an endorsement of renewable energy, according to Scientific American.

Key Milestones in the Pathway to Net Zero. Source: IEA Report

Milestones Pathway

One of the charts notes net-zero milestones. The chart mainly focuses on four sectors: buildings, transport, industry, and electricity and heat. If any of these sectors falls behind, it could be impossible to make up the difference. One of the more notable milestones: “Beyond projects already committed as of 2021, there are no new oil and gas fields approved for development in our pathway, and no new coal mines or mine extensions are required.” This action would lead to a sharp decline in fossil fuel demand, with coal demand declining by 90% by 2050, gas by 55%, and oil by 75% by 2050. By 2050, almost 90% of global electricity would come from carbon-free sources, with 70% coming from solar and wind and the rest mostly coming from nuclear.

While the IEA states that there would be no new fossil-fuel investments after 2020, many private companies still plan to continue exploration and expansion of gas production within the next decade. These projects are not needed in a net-zero pathway and as a result will become stranded.

Risk Factors in the Model

While the report does provide a solid foundation in taking steps to achieve net-zero, there are concerns and risks within the model that the IEA only briefly touched on within the report. These concerns included underestimating wind and solar, uncertainties with carbon capture and storage (CCS), growth projections in bioenergy, and reliance on fossil gas within the decade.

The IEA has acknowledged the growth of renewables and the end of fossil fuels. However, they have underestimated both the growth and the decline of the cost of power. It is only recently that they raised their growth forecast by more than 25% since the previous year. In comparing the recent model provided by the Energy Transition Commission to the IEA model, solar power provides double the energy of wind. As a result, this can potentially leave space for more precarious alternatives such as bioenergy.

Focusing on carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS) projects, the IEA notes that CCUS can remove 1.6 Gt (gigatons) of CO₂ per year by 2030 and 7.6 Gt by 2050. However, these projects currently can remove 0.4 Gt of emissions and, compared to the IPCC’s P2 Pathway, captures three times the level of emissions, an overestimation. The issue is that compared to solar power or clean energy that can be sold, CCUS only trap CO₂ emissions. As a result, companies won’t want to invest in technology that can only store emissions and nothing more. The IEA acknowledges that the level of CCUS deployment is unrealistic and provides a “low CCS” case within the report.

The IEA projects a 60% growth in bioenergy and a 25% increase in land area dedicated to it. Bioenergy is a type of energy from plant and algae materials, making it one of the more versatile renewable energy sources. However, bioenergy already affects vulnerable populations and can develop to “compete with food needs of a global population of more than 9 billion,” says Erle C. Ellis, a professor at the University of Maryland. As a result, the IEA needs to revise this part of the model. Although they claim that bioenergy crops are not projected to develop in forested land, critics state that it is difficult to perceive an alternative.

Finally, the IEA model would still allow for high levels of fossil fuel consumption with substantial use of coal and gas compared to the 2020 UN Production Gap Report. The UN report estimates that gas would decline by 3% per year from now until 2030, compared to the IEA in which gas would peak in 2025 and only decline just below 6% of 2020 levels by 2030.

Final Remarks

Overall, the 1.5C report is a significant step in the right direction, and this model provides a strong foundation in achieving net-zero by 2050, especially with the endorsement of the IEA. However, there are still risk factors that need to be revisited to attain large declines in fossil fuels. In addition, to achieve many of these pathways, we need not only technology innovation and policy but also citizen engagement and support. Together, those will play a major role in the transition’s speed and scale to achieve a net-zero future.

Diana M. Gastelum was a communications intern with MN350 through summer 2021.