Net-zero energy emissions by 2050 requires fundamental policy shift – report

Solar, wind and nuclear are building blocks towards target, says International Energy Agency

Climate pledges by governments to date – even if fully achieved – would fall well short of what is required to bring energy-related carbon dioxide emissions worldwide to net zero by 2050, according to an International Energy Agency (IEA) report.

They would give only “an even chance of limiting the global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees”, a key Paris Agreement target, it states.

The report says there is 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”.

It is the world’s first comprehensive study of how to transition to a net-zero energy system, “while ensuring stable and affordable energy supplies, providing universal energy access and enabling robust economic growth”.


The roadmap sets out a cost-effective course, “resulting in a clean, dynamic and resilient energy economy dominated by renewables like solar and wind instead of fossil fuels”.

It also examines key uncertainties, such as the roles of bioenergy, carbon capture and behavioural changes in reaching net zero.

"Our roadmap shows the priority actions needed today to ensure the opportunity of net-zero emissions by 2050 is not lost. 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 degrees – make this perhaps the greatest challenge humankind has ever faced," said IEA director Dr Fatih Birol.

“The IEA’s pathway to this brighter future brings a historic surge in clean energy investment that creates millions of new jobs and lifts global economic growth. Moving the world on to that pathway requires strong and credible policy actions from governments, underpinned by much greater international co-operation,” he underlined.

The roadmap sets out more than 400 milestones to reach the 2050 target, including, “from today, no investment in new fossil fuel supply projects, and no further final investment decisions for new unabated coal plants”.

By 2035, there would be no sales of new internal combustion engine passenger cars and, by 2040, the global electricity sector would already have reached net-zero emissions, it says.

Global push

It requires immediate and massive deployment of all available clean and efficient energy technologies, combined with a global push to accelerate innovation.

The pathway calls for annual additions of solar photovoltaic technology to reach 630 gigawatts (GW) – equivalent to installing the world’s current largest solar park every day – and wind power to reach 390 GW by 2030, four times the combined record level set in 2020.

A worldwide push to increase energy efficiency is an essential element of the plan, resulting in a 4 per cent improvement in the global rate of energy efficiency annually through 2030, it suggests.

Most reductions in emissions between now and 2030 in the net-zero pathway come from technologies readily available today. But, by 2050, almost half the reductions come from technologies currently only at demonstration or prototype phase, it notes.

Governments must quickly increase and reprioritise 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, it says. Progress in advanced batteries, electrolysers for hydrogen, and direct air capture and storage can be particularly impactful, the IEA concludes.

Huge opportunity

"The clean energy transition is for and about people," added Dr Birol who will brief the Dublin Climate Dialogues conference on Wednesday on the report's implications.

“Our roadmap shows that the enormous challenge of rapidly transitioning to a net-zero energy system is also a huge opportunity for our economies. The transition must be fair and inclusive, leaving nobody behind.

“We have to ensure developing economies receive the financing and technological know-how they need to build out their energy systems to meet the needs of their expanding populations and economies in a sustainable way,” he said.

The report is designed to inform negotiations at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow next November. It was requested as input to the negotiations by the UK government, which is hosting the UN gathering.

An energy 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 IEA points out.

Providing electricity to about 785 million people who currently have no access to it and clean cooking solutions to 2.6 billion people who lack them is an integral part of the proposed net-zero pathway. This will cost $40 billion (€32.9 billion) a year, equal to about 1 per cent of average annual energy-sector investment.

It will also bring health benefits through reductions in indoor air pollution, cutting the number of premature deaths by 2.5 million a year.

Total annual energy investment will surge to $5 trillion by 2030, the plan envisages, 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 creates millions of jobs in clean energy, including energy efficiency, as well as in engineering, manufacturing and construction industries,” it concludes.This would put global GDP 4 per cent higher in 2030 than it would reach based on current trends.”

Energy in 2050

By 2050, the energy world will look completely different under the IEA plan: Global energy demand will be about 8 per cent smaller than today in an economy more than twice as big and with two billion more people. Almost 90 per cent of electricity generation comes from renewable sources, with wind and solar PV together accounting for almost 70 per cent. Most of the remainder comes from nuclear power.

Solar will be the world’s single largest source of total energy supply. Fossil fuels will fall from almost four-fifths of total energy supply today to slightly over one-fifth. Fossil fuels that remain will be 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 pathway laid out in our roadmap is global in scope, but each country will need to design its own strategy, taking into account its own specific circumstances,” Dr Birol underlined.

Plans need to reflect their differing stages of economic development, so the pathway shows advanced economies reaching net zero before developing economies.

As the role of oil and gas diminishes, new energy security challenges will emerge, the IEA warns. “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.”

As a consequence, Opec’s share of a much-reduced global oil supply grows from about 37 per cent in recent years to 52 per cent in 2050, it concludes, a level higher than at any point in the history of oil markets.

Security challenges

Growing energy security challenges, resulting from the increasing importance of electricity, include the variability of supply from some renewables and cybersecurity risks. In addition, 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.

“Governments need to create markets for investments in batteries, digital solutions and electricity grids that reward flexibility and enable adequate and reliable supplies of electricity. The rapidly growing role of critical minerals calls for new international mechanisms to ensure both the timely availability of supplies and sustainable production,” Dr Birol said.

COP26 president Alok Sharma welcomed the report, adding it makes the case to scale up clean technologies in all sectors and to phase out coal power and polluting vehicles in the coming decade.

“It [also] underlines the great value of international collaboration, without which the transition to global net zero could be delayed by decades,” he added.

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times