The world has a viable pathway to building a global energy sector with net-zero emissions in 2050, but it is narrow and requires an unprecedented transformation of how energy is produced, transported and used globally, according to a new special report from the International Energy Agency (IEA).
Climate pledges by governments to date—even if fully achieved—would fall well short of what is required to bring global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions to net zero by 2050 and give the world an even chance of limiting the global temperature rise to 1.5 °C, according to the new report, Net Zero by 2050: a Roadmap for the Global Energy Sector.
The report is the first comprehensive study of how to transition to a net zero energy system by 2050 while ensuring stable and affordable energy supplies, providing universal energy access, and enabling robust economic growth. The report also examines key uncertainties, such as the roles of bioenergy, carbon capture and behavioral changes in reaching net zero.
Building on the IEA’s energy modeling tools and expertise, the Roadmap sets out more than 400 milestones to net zero by 2050. These include, from today, no investment in new fossil fuel supply projects, and no further final investment decisions for new unabated coal plants. By 2035, there are no sales of new internal combustion engine passenger cars, and by 2040, the global electricity sector has already reached net-zero emissions.
In the near term, the report describes a net-zero pathway that requires the immediate and massive deployment of all available clean and efficient energy technologies, combined with a major global push to accelerate innovation. The pathway calls for annual additions of solar PV to reach 630 GW by 2030, and those of wind power to reach 390 GW. Together, this is four times the record level set in 2020.
For solar PV, it is equivalent to installing the world’s current largest solar park roughly every day. A major worldwide push to increase energy efficiency is also an essential part of these efforts, resulting in the global rate of energy efficiency improvements averaging 4% a year through 2030—about three times the average over the last two decades.
Most of the global reductions in CO2 emissions between now and 2030 in the net zero pathway come from technologies readily available today. But in 2050, almost half the reductions must come from technologies that are currently only at the demonstration or prototype phase.
This demands that governments quickly increase and reprioritize their spending on research and development—as well as on demonstrating and deploying clean energy technologies—putting them at the core of energy and climate policy. Progress in the areas of advanced batteries, electrolyzers for hydrogen, and direct air capture and storage can be particularly impactful.
A transition of such scale and speed cannot be achieved without sustained support and participation from citizens, whose lives will be affected in multiple ways, the report notes.
Providing electricity to around 785 million people who have no access to it and clean cooking solutions to 2.6 billion people who lack them is an integral part of the Roadmap’s net-zero pathway. This costs around $40 billion a year, equal to around 1% of average annual energy sector investment. It also brings major health benefits through reductions in indoor air pollution, cutting the number of premature deaths by 2.5 million a year.
Total annual energy investment surges to US$5 trillion by 2030 in the net zero pathway, adding an extra 0.4 percentage points a year to global GDP growth, based on a joint analysis with the International Monetary Fund. The jump in private and government spending would be expected to create millions of jobs in clean energy, including energy efficiency, as well as in the engineering, manufacturing and construction industries. All of this puts global GDP 4% higher in 2030 than it would reach based on current trends.
By 2050, global energy demand is around 8% smaller than today, but it serves an economy more than twice as big and a population with 2 billion more people, according to the model. Almost 90% of electricity generation comes from renewable sources, with wind and solar PV together accounting for almost 70%. Most of the remainder comes from nuclear power. Solar is the world’s single largest source of total energy supply.
Fossil fuels fall from almost four-fifths of total energy supply today to slightly over one-fifth. Fossil fuels that remain are used in goods where the carbon is embodied in the product such as plastics, in facilities fitted with carbon capture, and in sectors where low-emissions technology options are scarce.
The special report is designed to inform the high-level negotiations that will take place at the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26) of the United Nations Climate Change Framework Convention in Glasgow in November. It was requested as input to the negotiations by the UK government’s COP26 Presidency.
New energy security challenges will emerge on the way to net zero by 2050 while longstanding ones will remain, even as the role of oil and gas diminishes. The contraction of oil and natural gas production will have far-reaching implications for all the countries and companies that produce these fuels. No new oil and natural gas fields are needed in the net zero pathway, and supplies become increasingly concentrated in a small number of low-cost producers. OPEC’s share of a much-reduced global oil supply grows from around 37% in recent years to 52% in 2050, a level higher than at any point in the history of oil markets.
Growing energy security challenges that result from the increasing importance of electricity include the variability of supply from some renewables and cybersecurity risks. In addition, the rising dependence on critical minerals required for key clean energy technologies and infrastructure brings risks of price volatility and supply disruptions that could hinder the transition.