The world has seen a proliferating number of pledges by numerous governments and companies to reach net zero emissions in the coming decades as part of global efforts to meet long-term sustainability goals, such as the Paris Agreement on climate change.

However, there is a stark disconnect between these high-profile pledges and the current state of clean energy technology, states the International Energy Agency (IEA) in their latest Special Report on Clean Energy Innovation. Without a major acceleration in clean energy innovation, net zero emissions targets will not be achievable.

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The agency further highlights that while the technologies in use today can deliver a large amount of the emissions reductions called for by these goals, they are insufficient on their own to bring the world to net zero while ensuring energy systems remain secure – even with much stronger policies supporting them.

Much of these emissions come from sectors where the technology options for reducing them are limited – such as shipping, trucks, aviation and heavy industries like steel, cement and chemicals.

Decarbonising these sectors will largely demand the development of new technologies not yet in use. And many of the clean energy technologies that are available today need more work to bring down costs and accelerate deployment.

Innovation is the key to fostering new technologies and advancing existing ones. IEA’s report assesses the ways in which clean energy innovation can be significantly accelerated with a view to achieving net zero emissions and enhancing energy security.

The report comes with a new ETP Clean Energy Technology Guide that encompasses around 400 component technologies and identifies their stage of readiness for the market.

Innovation pipeline to achieving net zero emissions

Innovation is not the same as invention. After a new idea makes its way from the drawing board to the laboratory and out into the world, there are four key stages in the clean energy innovation pipeline. But this pathway to maturity can be long, and success is not guaranteed:

  • Prototype: A concept is developed into a design, and then into a prototype for a new device (e.g. a furnace that produces steel with pure hydrogen instead of coal).
  • Demonstration: The first examples of a new technology are introduced at the size of a full-scale commercial unit (e.g. a system that captures CO2 emissions from cement plants).
  • Early adoption: At this stage, there is still a cost and performance gap with established technologies, which policy attention must address (e.g. electric and hydrogen-powered cars).
  • Mature: As deployment progresses, the product moves into the mainstream as a common choice for new purchases (e.g. hydropower turbines).

The IEA recognises that there are no single or simple solutions to putting the world on a sustainable path to net-zero emissions.

Reducing global CO2 emissions will require a broad range of different technologies working across all sectors of the economy in various combinations and applications. “These technologies are at widely varying stages of development, but we can already map out how much they are likely to need to contribute to the emissions reductions necessary to meet international energy and climate goals,” says the IEA.

The key technologies the energy sector needs to reach net zero emissions are known today, but not all of them are ready. Around half of the cumulative emissions reductions that would move the world onto a sustainable trajectory come from four main technology approaches.

These are the electrification of end-use sectors such as heating and transport; the application of carbon capture, utilisation and storage; the use of low-carbon hydrogen and hydrogen-derived fuels; and the use of bioenergy.

However, each of these areas faces challenges in making all parts of its value chain commercially viable in the sectors where reducing emissions is hardest. The ETP Clean Energy Technology Guide provides a framework for comparing the readiness for the market of more than 400 component technologies.

The IEA proposes five key innovation principles

For governments aiming to achieve net zero emissions goals while maintaining energy security, the IEA set out five principles primarily address national policy challenges in the context of global needs, but are relevant to all policymakers and strategists concerned with energy technologies and transitions:

Prioritise, track and adjust. Review the processes for selecting technology portfolios for public support to ensure that they are rigorous, collective, flexible and aligned with local advantages.

Raise public R&D and market-led private innovation. Use a range of tools – from public research and development to market incentives – to expand funding according to the different technologies.

Address all links in the value chain. Look at the bigger picture to ensure that all components of key value chains are advancing evenly towards the next market application and exploiting spillovers.

Build enabling infrastructure. Mobilise private finance to help bridge the ‘valley of death’ by sharing the investment risks of network enhancements and commercial-scale demonstrators.

Work globally for regional success. Co-operate to share best practices, experiences and resources to tackle urgent and global technology challenges, including via existing multilateral platforms.

Read the full ETP Clean Energy Technology Guide.