Ocean Mist

Issues and trends shaping our environment, health and economy

24 May 2021

Cleaner – faster

Posted by Michael Keating

It’s time to start cutting the ties to fossil fuels. That’s the short, sharp, hard message from the International Energy Agency [IEA]. Its report Net Zero by 2050: a Roadmap for the Global Energy Sector, says that if countries are going to achieve their Paris agreement goal of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 they have to start moving a lot faster than they are now. They need to immediately cease new investments in oil, gas and coal supply, shutter coal-fired plants in advanced economies by 2030 and ban sales of new internal combustion engine cars by 2035. IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol said the opportunity to bring emissions down in time to stop severe climate change is “narrow but still achievable.” He went on to say, “The scale and speed of the efforts demanded by this critical and formidable goal – our best chance of tackling climate change and limiting global warming to 1.5 °C – make this perhaps the greatest challenge humankind has ever faced,”

It’s a kick in the behind for the numerous governments that keep funding and encouraging more fossil fuel development even as they promise to reduce emissions. Although some countries are cutting fossil fuel use others are still expanding it, particularly with coal-fired power plants, one of the biggest sources of carbon dioxide. Many are still expanding their natural gas networks which supply fuel for heating to hundreds of millions of homes and other buildings. There is already pushback from some developing countries that want to take advantage of established fossil fuel technologies to expand their economic growth. Just after the IEA report came out the G7 nations and the European Union agreed to stop international funding for coal projects that release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

For years climate activists, recently joined by some major investors, have been calling for an end to investment in fossil fuels. The IEA report is support from a highly credible source, one that was created in 1974 to ensure the security of oil supplies after the 1973 oil embargo by major producing countries. The agency has evolved to the point that it calls for “the complete transformation of the global energy system.” It says that by 2050 oil, gas and coal use needs to fall to just 20 per cent of energy supply, down from 80 per cent currently. What remains of fossil fuel use will need to be offset by carbon capture technology.

The IEA report, which it calls the world’s first comprehensive energy roadmap, focuses on energy, source of around three-quarters of greenhouse gas emissions today. In addition to stopping the expansion of fossil fuel use, it calls for the “massive deployment of all available clean and efficient energy technologies, combined with a major global push to accelerate innovation.” We need an unprecedented expansion of technologies such as renewables, electric vehicles and energy efficient building retrofits between now and 2030. The IEA says that most of the reductions in CO2 emissions this decade can come from current technologies but after that we need to roll out technologies that are still at the demonstration or prototype stage.

The IEA says global clean energy investments need to more than triple by 2030 to around $4 trillion a year. The upside of such investments is not only a more stable climate but a 4 per cent boost in global GDP by 2030 and the opportunity to provide clean electricity to most of the world. There will be great opportunities for innovation in sectors such as advanced batteries, hydrogen fuel and carbon removal from the atmosphere. Virtually eliminating fossil fuel burning would get rid of air pollution that sickens and kills millions of people a year.

We are on the road to a historic change. Wind farms and giant solar arrays are spreading faster than ever. Automotive giants like Ford, General Motors and Volkswagen have decided on an electric future and announced billions of dollars in investments in electric vehicles.

Electric pickup truck
All-electric pickup truck

The IEA report calls for a growth spurt in renewables that is hard to grasp. For solar power, it is equivalent to installing the world’s current largest solar park roughly every day. While governments need to lead change the report says, “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.” Around 55 per cent of the emission reductions in the proposed pathway are linked to consumer choices such as purchasing an EV, retrofitting a house with energy-efficient technologies or installing a heat pump. Behavioural changes, particularly in advanced economies – such as replacing car trips with walking, cycling or public transport, or foregoing a long-haul flight – also provide around 4 per cent of the reductions.

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