Gap between rhetoric and action on climate is widening, IEA chief warns

Fatih Birol says investment in clean tech needs to more than double to $5 trillion

The gap between rhetoric and action on climate is widening, the head of International Energy Agency (IEA) Fatih Birol has warned. He also said that global investment in clean tech would need to more than double to $5 trillion by 2030 if the world was to meet a net zero emissions target by 2050.

While more and more countries are signing up to net zero emissions targets, global emissions are on course to surge by 1.5 billion tonnes this year– the second-largest increase in history, Dr Birol told the Dublin Climate Dialogues conference.

“The gap between the rhetoric and what is happening in real life is widening,” he said.

In a hard-hitting report this week, the IEA warned there would have to be an abrupt halt to new oil, gas and coal supply projects if the world wants to reach net zero emissions by 2050.



The 2015 Paris climate accord aims to cap the rise in temperatures to as close as possible to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial times.

The report warned that even if the existing 2050 commitments are achieved, there will still be 22 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide worldwide in 2050 which would lead to temperature rise of around 2.1 degrees by 2100, a rise that will have a major impact on climate and sea levels.

“The pathway to net zero 2050 is narrow but still achieveable,” Dr Birol told the conference. It would require three things; a massive uptake in clean tech, such as electric cars (EVs) over the next 10 years; developing nascent technologies - he mentioned hydrogen-based technologies; and a substantial reduction in the use of fossil fuels.

“It we do these things, the energy mix in 2050 will be very different,” he said. Currently most of the world’s energy comes from fossil fuels, primarily oil and gas.

The key to making this transition is “money,investments”, Dr Birol told the conference. He said total energy investment will have to more than double - from its current level of $2 trillion - to $5 trillion by 2030 for the world to transition to a net zero emissions footing by 2050.

This will require “an historical surge in investment,” one that would add an extra 0.4 percentage points a year to global GDP growth, he said.


The IEA's report sets out more than 400 milestones to achieving net zero, intended to guide the next round of global climate talks in November in Scotland.

These include, Dr Birol said, no more additional investments in oil, gas and coal as of 2021; no more coal-fired power plants as of 2021; a complete end to sales of combustion engine cars by 2035; and net zero global electricity generation by 2040.

“If you ask me are these realistic - and based on what the energy sector did over the last few years - it is very tall order,” he said.

A “just transition” means rich countries should reach net zero before 2050 while developing countries should reach the target later. “You cannot put Ireland in the same basket as Bangladesh,” Dr Birol said.

Eoin Burke-Kennedy

Eoin Burke-Kennedy

Eoin Burke-Kennedy is Economics Correspondent of The Irish Times