The SourceCivil Engineering MagazineHow to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 — but there is a cost

How to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 — but there is a cost

By Jenny Jones

Many countries around the world have talked about the need to combat climate change, but few have taken serious steps to address the burgeoning crisis. To move more countries to action, the Paris-based International Energy Agency recently released a comprehensive plan that outlines specific recommendations for achieving net-zero global carbon dioxide energy emissions by 2050 — and a shot at limiting the average temperature rise to 1.5 C.

blue report cover with white font and a cloud
Net Zero by 2050 – A Roadmap for the Global Energy Sector (Courtesy of IEA)

Net Zero by 2050: A Roadmap for the Global Energy Sector is a 224-page report that implores all nations to immediately and extensively deploy existing clean and efficient energy technologies, including solar, wind, and nuclear power as well as electric vehicles, while reducing their reliance on fossil fuels to dramatically decrease CO2 emissions over the next decade. It also urges governments to significantly increase investments in the rapid development of emerging and new technologies, including advanced batteries and hydrogen applications, to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 — actions that the IEA says will also bolster the economy, including adding jobs to the building and construction sectors.

“There is a growing gap between the rhetoric we hear from governments (and) industry and what is happening in real life,” said Fatih Birol, Ph.D., executive director of the intergovernmental IEA, during a May 18 press conference to launch the report. “We hear a lot of commitments, a lot of pledges, but the emissions aren’t going down.” As such, the IEA decided to create a road map for the global energy sector. “We came up with more than 400 milestones — what governments need to do and when they need to do it — so that we can reach our climate targets,” Birol said.

Existing technologies

To start, the road map calls for unprecedented action to drive consumer spending and industry investment toward available clean energy technologies over the next 10 years. “We find that the pathway to net zero is narrow but still feasible,” said Laura Cozzi, chief energy modeler for the IEA, during the press conference.

“We really call (the next 10 years) the decade of massive clean energy expansion,” Cozzi said. “The good news is that … we have all of the technologies that we need to cut emissions by 13 Gt.”

The IEA envisions most of these cuts coming from the power sector. The report calls for bringing an additional 390 GW of wind energy and 630 GW of solar photovoltaics online annually by 2030 — four times the already record levels set in 2020. “We need a huge push of solar energy,” said Cozzi, noting that 250 GW of solar PVs were installed around the globe in 2020, but that amount needs to be quadrupled by 2030. “Quadrupling is something that the solar industry is accustomed to. It’s what they achieved last decade, so we need to replicate (that),” she said.

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(Courtesy of IEA)

In addition to expanding wind and solar energy sources, the report calls on governments to enact policies for retrofitting buildings with clean energy technologies. This includes replacing fossil fuel boilers with such technology as heat pumps, bioenergy boilers, solar thermal, district heat, low-carbon gases, or hydrogen fuel cells to propel a 40% decrease in building emissions by 2030, the report states. “One in every five buildings needs to be retrofitted,” Cozzi explained. “We have the technologies; we know how to retrofit buildings. We just need to make sure that there is policy that is very intensive to go about this very quickly.”

Other existing emissions-reducing technologies that governments must ensure are more broadly deployed over the decade include electric vehicles. For net-zero emissions to remain achievable by 2050, electric vehicle sales must rise from 5% to 60% of global car sales by 2030, the report states. In other words, the increase in electric passenger car sales must be 20 times higher this decade than the increase in internal combustion engine car sales was over the last 10 years, according to the report.

New technologies

As countries deploy available clean energy technologies over the decade, the report recommends that they simultaneously increase investments in new solutions — including advanced batteries, hydrogen electrolyzers, and direct-air CO2 capture and storage — which will account for more than half the CO2 emission reductions needed to reach net zero in 2050. It also calls for investments in pipelines to transport captured CO2 emissions and move hydrogen between ports and industrial zones. “We need to push the magic button of innovation,” Birol said. “We need (new) technologies to help us, especially around and after 2030 to reduce the emissions.”

Roughly $25 billion in public money is currently budgeted for clean energy demonstration projects over the decade. The report calls for increasing this number to $90 billion to complete a portfolio of these projects by 2030. In fact, the report recommends that global annual energy investments swell from a global average of $2.3 trillion today to $5 trillion by 2030, with a focus on clean energy, Birol said. “Today, investment numbers are dominated by fossil fuels, and by 2030, it should be dominated by clean energy options,” he said, noting that a historical surge for investments is needed to make this transformation in the energy system.

In addition to creating new energy technologies, these actions will develop major new industries as well as commercial and employment opportunities, the report states. The International Monetary Fund projects that the $5 trillion in energy investments outlined in the report would result in an additional 0.4% annual increase in global gross domestic product. “We calculate that this all together makes about 30 million additional jobs created,” Birol said. “But at the same time, we see that about 5 million jobs are lost, especially those who are dealing with the fossil fuel production or technologies related to fossil fuel.”

International cooperation

Although the IEA report offers a defined approach for achieving net-zero emissions by 2050, it is not the only way to achieve this goal, stressed Timur Gul, head of the IEA’s energy technology policy division, during the press conference. “Our scenario is a pathway and not the pathway to net-zero emissions by the year 2050,” he said. “We do hope, though, that our report — with the details, the pragmatic recommendations that it sets out — will inform and stimulate the debate on how our collective climate goals can be achieved.”

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(Courtesy of IEA)

The important thing is that all countries, citizens, and industries do their part to achieve net zero, Gul said. “We need to bring international cooperation to new heights, accelerating innovation, developing international standards, (and) coordinating to scale up technologies in such a way that (it) links the national markets,” he said, adding that if international cooperation is not heightened to this scale, the world will have no shot at achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.

Birol echoed these comments and evoked the United Nations’ “Race to Zero” campaign to call on all countries to join forces to address the climate crisis. “The race is not between countries, but the race is against time,” he said. “Unless all the governments finish the race, nobody can win.”

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3 COMMENTS

  1. I don’t see any consideration of the enormous environmental costs associated with solar and wind. Both require substantial impacts from the land areas needed, and the impacts from mining rare earth resources. Nor do I see any recognition of the limited useful lives that require replacement and disposal. For example, solar panels and wind turbans last only about 20 years and must be replaced, while fossil-fuel and nuclear plants have over 50-year life spans. If lowering carbon dioxide emissions is so important, why isn’t nuclear part of the solution. And little is mentioned about the unreliability of solar and wind when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow (which was the main cause of the recent Texas blackout). The whole notion of zero net emissions by 2050 is shear fanacy.

    • Total and utter HOGWASH!!! For instance, there is very little impact on land area from off-shore wind and the oceans of the world have more than enough space to accommodate all the needed additional energy production. Solar cells, if you have ever been to California, live largely on the rooftops of residential, commercial and industrial buildings, thus, not taking up land area. It is a fallacy that fossil fuel plants have a 50-year lifespan, because in that period of time the majority of critical systems will have been changed out several times, (e.g. boilers, heat exchanger tubing, bearings, countless electric motors, controls and sensors AT TAXPAYER (i.e. ratepayer) expense! By the way, the main cause of the Texas blackout was the Arctic blast of freezing weather that froze up the natural gas wellheads and pipelines not to mention the nuclear cooling towers that froze up (yeah Buddy, they use water to cool and they are not designed for arctic temperatures). Global warming is real and we will either deal with it or it will deal us a losing hand. By the way, you misspelled “fantasy” which net-zero is not.

  2. It’s a fraudulent theory that CO2 emissions causes climate change and therefore a net zero approach would be a tremendous waste of resources.

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