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Renewables to account for 90% of electricity by 2050 to meet ‘narrow’ pathway to net zero says IEA

Image: Getty.

Image: Getty.

The opportunity to hit net zero by 2050 globally is “narrow but still achievable” if renewables grow to dominate the energy sector, while no additional investments into fossil fuels are made.

In the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) new report, Net Zero by 2050: A Roadmap for the Global Energy Sector, it details a global pathway to decarbonisation by the middle of the century.

The energy system – which accounts for three-quarters of greenhouse gas emissions – “holds the key” to averting the worst of climate change, the report states. But this will require a complete transformation of how we generate, transport and consume energy.

An “unprecedented clean technology push” over the next decade will be needed, with energy efficiency measures meaning the world economy can grow by 40% by 2030 whilst using 7% less energy.

Renewables will need to take over from fossil fuels, with the pathway laid out by the IEA calling for annual additions of 630GW of solar photovoltaics and 390GW of wind by 2030. This would be four-times the record level of growth set in 2020.

Electrification will need to emerge as a crucial economy-wide tool for reducing emissions, with electric vehicles (EVS) a particular growth area, going from around 5% of global car sales to more than 60% by 2030. Around 55% of cumulative emissions reductions are linked to consumer choices such as buying an EV or a heat pump, therefore citizen support for change must be incentivised.

All of the technologies needed to reach the “necessary deep cuts in global emissions” exist the IEA said, but the 2020s must be a decade of massive clean energy expansion.

Governments need to significantly strengthen and successfully implement their energy and climate policies, both in the short and long term. While the number of governments who have committed to net zero by 2050 has now grown to cover around 70% of global emissions of CO2, most are not backed up by near term policy.

Clean innovation leap needed before 2050

To reach net zero by 2050, a further clean energy innovation leap will be needed. By the middle of the century, almost half of the reductions that come mapped by the IEA come from technologies that are either in the demonstration or prototype phase.

The biggest innovation opportunities lie in advanced batteries, hydrogen electrolysers and direct air capture and storage. To get these technologies ready for net zero, a huge R&D push is needed, with around US$90 billion (£63 billion) of public money mobilised globally to complete a portfolio of demonstration projects as soon as possible. Currently, only around US$25 billion is budgeted to 2030.

These will work alongside renewables by 2050, which will dominate the energy sector, providing two-thirds of supply. Solar is set to become the largest source, accounting for a fifth, with solar PV capacity increasing 20-fold between now and 2050, while total wind increases 11-fold.

Electricity will need to grow to account for almost 50% of total energy consumption, and is expected to play a key role in decarbonisation across all sectors. Total generation will need to increase over two‐and‐a‐half‐times between now and 2050.

No additional new investment decisions should be taken for coal and the least efficient coal plants need to be phased out by 2030. Almost 90% of electricity generation should come from renewables by 2050 though, with wind and solar together accounting for almost 70%, while nuclear makes up most of the remainder.

A huge decline in fossil fuels will be needed for net zero, falling to just a fifth of total energy supply from four-fifths today. Fossil fuels in 2050 will be used for goods, in facilities fitted with CCUS and in difficult to decarbonise sectors only.

Given the needed decline in the use of all fossil fuels, the IEA’s pathway includes no new oil and gas fields being approved for development, along with no new coal mine or mine extensions. Unabated coal demand declines by 90% to just 1% by 2050, gas by 55% to 1,750 billion cubic metres and oil declines by 75% to 24 million barrels per day (mb/d), from around 90 mb/d in 2020.

In order to support this switch to renewables, network infrastructure will require significant investment. By 2030, annual investment in transmission and distribution grids must grow from US$260 billion today to US$820 billion. As part of this, electricity system flexibility quadruples to 2050, with batteries, demand response and low-carbon flexible power plants supported by digital infrastructure key for resilience.

Additionally, investment in EV infrastructure will be needed as the number of public charging points must grow from around a million today to 40 million by 2030, requiring an annual investment of almost US$90 billion.

By pursuing the IEA’s pathway, the “unparalled clean energy investment boom” can lift global economic growth, in particular in the wake of COVID-19. Governments must ensure that the benefits of this are felt by all, with a strong focus on green job growth underpinned by policy decisions.

The report includes 400 milestones, spread across all sectors and technologies to enable net zero by the middle of the century that governments should consider. Following these would allow the world to limit climate change to 1.5 degrees, with no offsets from outside the energy sector and with minimum reliance on emission negative technologies like CCS.

“The world has a huge challenge ahead of it to move net zero by 2050 from a narrow possibility to a practical reality,” wrote Dr Fatih Birol, IEA executive director in the foreword.

“Global carbon dioxide emissions are already rebounding sharply as economies recover from last year’s pandemic‐induced shock. It is past time for governments to act, and act decisively to accelerate the clean energy transformation.”

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