IIR Energy Analysts Question Feasibility of IEA Roadmap to Net-Zero Emissions
Written by John Egan for Industrial Info Resources (Sugar Land, Texas)--Energy analysts at Industrial Info Resources questioned the practicality of a roadmap to a net-zero carbon emissions world, which was laid out in a wide-ranging report released last week by the International Energy Agency (IEA) (Paris, France).
The analysis, Net Zero by 2050: A Roadmap for the Global Energy Sector, is an unflinching look at the dramatic and immediate steps governments, companies and individuals need to take to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions to the point where the global temperature gain is held to 1.5 degrees Celsius over preindustrial levels, as set out in the 2015 Paris Agreement. Virtually every nation in the world signed that agreement. The U.S. signed that agreement in 2015; the Trump administration withdrew from it in 2016, but President Joe Biden rejoined it earlier this year.
Unfortunately, as the report noted, it's easier to sign a high-minded multinational commitment to reduce CO2 emissions than it is to completely transform a multi-trillion-dollar global energy production and consumption system that has evolved over the last 150 years.
"The number of countries that have pledged to reach net‐zero emissions by mid‐century or soon after continues to grow, but so do global greenhouse gas emissions," IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol noted in his foreword to the report, which was released May 17. "This gap between rhetoric and action needs to close if we are to have a fighting chance of reaching net zero by 2050 and limiting the rise in global temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius."
The report asserted that 2021 is "a critical year at the start of a critical decade" for this transformation. Last year, as documented in another IEA report, there was a dramatic and historic expansion of renewable energy. For more on that, see May 14, 2021, article - New IEA Report Predicts Surge in Worldwide New Renewable Generation. But this year, as many national economies revived after gaining some measure of control over the COVID-19 pandemic, another IEA report documented the sharp rise in energy use and CO2 emissions around the world. For more on that, see April 20, 2021, article - IEA Report Highlights China's Surging GDP and Energy Demand.
The authors of Net Zero by 2050 claimed the pathway they detail is "the most technically feasible, cost‐effective and socially acceptable" of several options they considered, but acknowledged their recommended pathway "remains narrow and extremely challenging."
In brief, the pathway IEA envisions includes:
- A dramatic reduction in fossil-fuel use around the world. Between 2020 and 2050, production of coal falls 90%, oil production drops 75% and natural gas production declines 55%.
- No new oil and natural gas fields are required beyond those that already have been approved for development.
- No new coal mines or mine extensions are required.
- Low-emission fuels, such as biogases, hydrogen and hydrogen‐based fuels, will account for nearly 20% of global final energy use by 2050, up from 1% in 2020.
- Electricity demand grows rapidly in the net-zero by 2050 scenario, rising 40% from today to 2030, and more than two‐and‐a‐half‐times to 2050.
- Renewable energy drives this global energy transformation, accounting for nearly 90% of electricity generated in 2050, up from 29% in 2020.
- From 2030 to 2050, 600,000 megawatts (MW) of solar photovoltaic generation and 340,000 MW of wind power are added each year.
- Global investment in electricity grids triples over the next decade and remains elevated for the two decades after that.
Transforming the world's electric generation business will require unparalleled annual investments in renewable energy.
Between 2016 and 2020, global renewable investments averaged a record of about $1.25 trillion per year, the IEA report said. Those clean energy investments must rise to more than $4 trillion per year starting by 2030, and continuing at roughly that level for two decades, until 2050.
The report noted three critical areas of uncertainty -- behavior change, existing technologies in the market and technologies under development -- will play significant roles in determining whether the requisite amount of CO2 emissions reduction can take place before 2050. The report estimates that significant reductions in CO2 emissions can be achieved with technologies already in the market, such as carbon capture, sequestration and use (CCUS). But it ascribes a decidedly minor role -- less than 5% -- to behavioral change, an estimate some may challenge.
Zoom in on the image to see the IEA's estimate of the role that existing technologies, behavioral change and technologies under development could play in reducing CO2 emissions.
"I commend the IEA for its effort in creating this roadmap to a net-zero emissions world by 2050, but the roadmap seems a little utopian. I question whether it is technically and economically feasible to completely eliminate fossil-fuel use around the world by 2050," said Joseph Govreau, Industrial Info's vice president of research for the Metals & Minerals Industry. "How will economies around the world replace 150 years of fossil-fuel infrastructure and double the capacity of the existing electricity grid in order to electrify transportation in only 30 years? We are making tremendous strides in renewables, hydrogen and battery technologies, but it will take a lot more to replace fossil fuels."
"Nuclear is a proven technology, and the IEA report recognizes the important role nuclear can play in lowering CO2 emissions," Govreau continued. "But advanced nuclear generation, such as what is being built at the Alvin W. Vogtle Nuclear Power Station in Georgia, has taken over a decade to build at a cost of over $25 billion. Granted, the Vogtle units being added are a first-of-a-kind technology, but even if you allow for significant learning curve benefits, new nuclear is too expensive to do at the scale envisioned in the IEA report."
Jesus Davis, Industrial Info's research specialist for North American Oil & Gas Production, Pipelines and Terminals, agreed with Govreau: "The report urges a phaseout of fossil fuels over the next three decades, but did not offer a real-world solution on how to replace that energy supply. Fossil fuels are still one of the most efficient forms of energy commercially available to us on a wide scale."
Davis continued: "You can't just assume that electricity will be produced. It has to be generated. Too often that point is overlooked. We can't just flip a switch and electrify the world, even over a multi-decade period. We can produce all of the batteries that we want, and those have some significant environmental consequences, but we still need to be able to keep them charged."
Industrial Info Resources (IIR), with global headquarters in Sugar Land, Texas, six offices in North America and 12 international offices, is the leading provider of global market intelligence specializing in the industrial process, heavy manufacturing and energy markets. Industrial Info's quality-assurance philosophy, the Living Forward Reporting Principle, provides up-to-the-minute intelligence on what's happening now, while constantly keeping track of future opportunities. Follow IIR on: Facebook - Twitter - LinkedIn.