net-zero
Getting rid of pollution caused by the creation of electricity is not enough to reach the world's carbon neutral goals. Image: Pixabay

Transforming solely the power sector only gets the world one-third of the way to net-zero emissions says a new International Energy Agency report, emphasising the need for greater efforts in other key sectors.

The IEA report, Energy Technology Perspectives 2020, says an urgent push is needed to develop and deploy clean energy technologies worldwide to meet international energy and climate goals. The report finds that evolving only the power sector to clean energy, only limits global emissions by a third.

Completing the rest of the journey means paying more attention to the transport, industry and building sectors, which collectively account for about 55% of carbon emission from energy systems.

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Much greater use of electricity in these sectors to power electric vehicles, recycle metals, heat buildings and other tasks, could make the single biggest contribution to reaching net-zero emissions, although many more technologies are needed, according to the report.

With global carbon emissions at unacceptably high levels, structural changes to energy systems are needed to achieve the kind of rapid and permanent decline in emissions needed to reach the world’s shared climate targets.

This year’s Energy Technology Perspectives Report is the first core ETP report in three years, following a revamp of the series. It analyses more than 800 different technology options to assess what must happen for the world to reach net-zero emission by 2070, while still ensuring a resilient and secure energy system.

IEA executive director Dr Fatih Birol says solar is leading renewables to new heights in markets across the globe.

Birol stated: “Ultra-low interest rates can help finance a growing number of clean energy projects. More governments and companies are throwing their weight behind these critical technologies, and all-important energy innovation may be about to take off.”

“However, we need even more countries and business to get on board. We need to redouble efforts to bring energy access to all those who currently lack it. We need to tackle emissions from the vast amounts of existing energy infrastructure in use worldwide, that threaten to put our shared goals out of reach,” explained Birol.

Effect of inefficient systems on net-zero efforts

The Energy Technology Perspective 2020 examines how to address the challenges of long-lasting energy assets already in existence.

These include inefficient coal power plants, steel mills and cement kilns, most of which are recently built in emerging Asian economies and could conceivably be in operation for decades to come. It finds the power sector plus the heavy industry sector account for 60% of emission from existing energy infrastructure.

That share climbs to almost 100% by 2050 if no action is taken to manage the existing infrastructure’s emissions. This emphasises how necessary it is to rapidly develop technologies such as hydrogen and carbon capture.

Making sure that new clean energy technologies are available in time for key investment decisions to be made, is critical. For example, in heavy industries, strategically timed investments could help to avoid about 40% of cumulative emissions from existing infrastructure in these sectors. Accelerating innovation is crucial for this, and for scaling up the cleaning energy technology needed across the entire energy system.

Where does hydrogen fit into the world’s energy plans?

There is a lot of pressure on hydrogen to play a large and varied role in helping the world to reach net-zero. It is expected to form a bridge between the power sector and the industries where the direct use of electricity are being challenged, such as shipping and steel.

The IEA’s Sustainable Development Scenario (their suggested pathway to reach international energy and climate goals) says the global capacity of electrolysers, which produce hydrogen from water and electricity, will expand to 3,300GW by 2070, from 0.2GW today.

By 2070 these electrolysers will consume twice the amount of electricity that China generates today. In the IEA scenario carbon capture will be used across a range of sectors, including the production of synthetic fuels and some low-carbon hydrogen.

Modern bioenergy would directly replace fossil fuels in areas such as transport, and offset emissions indirectly through its combined use with carbon capture.

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A truly blistering pace of technological transformation necessary for the world to reach net-zero emission by 2050 is explored in the Report’s Faster Innovation Case. That proposal finds that to meet the huge increase in demand for electricity, adding to the renewable energy power capacity would need to grow four times the current annual record reached in 2019.

The Report insists governments must play an outsized role in accelerating clean energy transitions toward meeting energy goals. It highlights core areas that policy makers must address to make this happen. It also notes that economic stimulus measures put into place to address a post-COVID-19 reality offer the opportunity to take urgent action that could boost economies while supporting clean energy and climate goals.

“Despite the difficulties caused by the COVID-19 crises, several recent developments give us grounds for increased optimism about the world’s ability to accelerate clean energy transitions and reach its energy and climate goals. Still, major issues remain. This new IEA report not only shows the scale of the challenge but also offers vital guidance for overcoming it,” said Birol.

Energy Technology Perspectives 2020 is a new IEA publication focused on the technology needs and opportunities for reaching international climate and sustainable energy goals.