Net Zero by 2050 – the mob rule of climate activists

“The IEA has surrendered its integrity to the mob rule of climate activists” was one response to a report released by the International Energy Agency on the 18th of May 2021.

Ah, yes, the mob, painted in druidish symbols, waving “∃!Ⓑ” banners, storming the concrete ramparts of 9 rue de la Fédération and smashing urns of priceless vintage crude until the IEA surrendered its integrity…

But seriously; given the IEA’s historically close association with the oil industry and the stark nature of the report – “Net Zero by 2050 – A Roadmap for the Global Energy Sector” – some strong reactions had to be expected.

Taken together, this Roadmap, the Dasgupta Review and the “Ghastly Future” paper  paint an excruciating picture of the problems we have created and also offer a path to solve them.  However success will call for major and urgent behavior change from the personal to the international level.  We have done it before – but only at times of war.  This fight for the biosphere is a step beyond.

In 224 pages, the Roadmap lays out a path for getting to Net Zero by 2050.  To me it appears like a Rorschach test; we all “see” something different.  Climate champions welcome the sense of urgency and call to action, while questioning a number of specifics.  Fossil fuel people react in more or less polite anger. The nuclear guys like what they see but want more. (See Note at end)

Let the Roadmap speak for itself:

“…the pledges by governments to date – even if fully achieved – fall well short of what is required to bring global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions to net zero by 2050 and give the world an even chance of limiting the global temperature rise to 1.5 °C

“…clean  energy  transitions  must  be  fair  and inclusive, leaving  nobody behind.  We  have  to  ensure  that  developing  economies  receive  the financing  and  technological  know‐how  they  need  to  continue  building  their  energy  systems to  meet  the  needs  of  their  expanding  populations  and  economies  in  a  sustainable  way.  It  is a  moral  imperative  to  bring  electricity  to  the  hundreds  of  millions  of  people  who  currently are deprived of  access to it, the  majority of them in Africa”.   

The  transition  to  net  zero  is  for  and  about  people.  It  is  paramount  to  remain  aware  that  not every  worker  in  the  fossil  fuel  industry  can  ease  into  a  clean  energy  job … Citizens must  be  active  participants  in  the  entire  process,  making  them  feel  part  of  the  transition  and not  simply  subject  to  it.”

“Priority Action” items from the Roadmap are:

  • Make the  2020s the decade of massive  clean  energy expansion – All  the  technologies  needed  to  achieve  the  necessary  deep  cuts  in  global  emissions  by 2030  already  exist,  and  the  policies  that  can  drive  their  deployment  are  already  proven.
  • Prepare for the next phase of the transition by boosting innovation – Clean energy innovation must accelerate rapidly, with governments putting R&D, demonstration and deployment at the core of energy and climate policy.
  • Clean energy  jobs will grow strongly  but must be  spread widely – Energy  transitions  have  to  take  account  of  the  social  and  economic  impacts  on individuals and  communities,  and treat people  as active participants.
  • Set near-term milestones to get  on track for long-term targets – Governments  need  to  provide  credible  step‐by‐step  plans  to  reach  their  net  zero  goals, building confidence among investors, industry, citizens and  other countries.
  • Drive a  historic surge in  clean energy investment – Policies  need  to  be  designed  to  send  market  signals  that  unlock  new  business  models and mobilize private spending,  especially in emerging economies
  • Address emerging energy security risks now – Ensuring  uninterrupted  and  reliable  supplies  of  energy  and  critical  energy‐related commodities at  affordable prices will only rise in importance  on the way to  net zero.
  • Take international co-operation to new heights – This  is  not  simply  a  matter  of  all  governments  seeking  to  bring  their  national  emissions to net zero – it  means tackling  global challenges through co‐ordinated actions.

NUMBERS from the Roadmap:

[EJ = exajoule – 1018 joules, CAAGR = Compound Average Annual Growth Rate, CCUS = Carbon Capture, Utilisation and Storage]

  • Total energy supply – going down! IEA expects everybody in the world to have access to electricity, while saving enough through “behavioural” changes to have a net reduction.  [What a great goal. Is it realistic?]
  • Renewables – a big increase in all renewables (except Hydro).
    • Solar – “For solar power, it is equivalent to installing the world’s current largest solar park roughly every day. To reach net zero emissions by 2050, annual clean energy investment worldwide will need to more than triple by 2030 to around $4 trillion”.  [Wow…]
    • Bioenergy – this increase has drawn criticism from a number of sources.  [Can it be done and also ensure biodiversity, long term soil health, community integrity? See my previous post on biomass.]
  • Traditional biomass: “Some  40%  of  the  solid  biomass  was  used  in  traditional  cooking  methods  which is unsustainable, inefficient and polluting, and  was linked to  2.5 million  premature deaths in 2020.  The  use  of  solid  biomass  in  this  manner  falls  to  zero  by  2030 …”. [A laudable goal and in line with the goal of providing access to electricity to all.  Can it be done in less than 9 years?  In the face of tradition and poverty?]
  • Nuclear – The IEA has been a supporter of nuclear energy through its history and does not change in this report.  The word “nuclear” appears some 90 times in the report (to be fair so do the other fuels).  However the word “waste” does not appear anywhere near “nuclear”.  The report does state: “The  large  fleet  of  ageing  nuclear  reactors  in  advanced  economies  means  their decommissioning  increases,  despite  many  reactor  lifetime  extensions”.  [What happens to the waste from these reactors? The nuclear waste issue is not solved.  Of all the countries using nuclear power only Finland is in the actual construction phase of a High Level/Long Term Waste storage facility.  Many countries, including the USA, China, France and Sweden, have identified and planned sites. But all have run into roadblocks preventing construction – from my previous post on nuclear power]
  • Fossil Fuels – As expected these take the greatest hit in the roadmap.  Adding the “unabated” (i.e. with direct GHG emissions) and the “with CCUS” numbers the drop from 2020 to 2050, in exo-joules, is: Gas; 137 to 60, Oil; 173 to 42 and Coal; 154 to 17 – with the attendant loss of revenues and employment. [The problem here is that although CCUS is known technology, “rapid scaling up of CCUS are very uncertain for economic, political and technical reasons”]

KEY UNCERTAINTIES called out in the Roadmap are: “…behavioural  change,  bioenergy  and  CCUS  for  fossil  fuels.  These three  areas  were  selected  because  the  assumptions  made  about  them  involve  a  high  degree of  uncertainty  and  because  of  their  critical  contributions  to  achieve  net‐zero  emissions  by 2050″.

  • Behavior – This is mostly in flying, driving and heating/cooling behaviors
  • Bioenergy  – “….there  are  constraints  on  expanding  the  supply  of  bioenergy:  with  finite potential  for  bioenergy  production  from  waste  streams,  there  are  possible  trade‐offs between  expanding  bioenergy  production,  achieving  sustainable  development  goals  and avoiding conflicts with other land uses, notably food production”. [As stated before this does not address concerns re biodiversity, species loss, quite apart from the aesthetics of “wild places”]
  • CCUS – “The use of CCUS with fossil fuels provides almost 70% of the total growth in CCUS to 2030 in the NZE. Yet the prospects for the rapid scaling up of CCUS are very uncertain for economic, political and technical reasons”

Others, in my opinion equally uncertain are:

  • Innovation – “Innovation is key to developing new clean energy technologies and advancing existing ones. The importance of innovation increases as we get closer to 2050 because existing technologies will not be able to get us all the way along the path to net‐zero emissions. Almost 50% of the emissions reductions needed in 2050 in the NZE depend on technologies that are at the prototype or demonstration stage, i.e. are not yet available on the market
  • International Cooperation – “Take international co-operation to new heights. This  is  not  simply  a  matter  of  all  governments  seeking  to  bring  their  national  emissions to net zero – it  means tackling  global challenges through co‐ordinated actions”. 

BOTTOM LINE: Massive, urgent, international and personal change is needed to meet global warming goals.  Can it be done?  Yes.  Will it be done?  The probability is: No.  But let’s surprise ourselves.

Note 1 – The IEA NZE Roadmap

Note 2 – IEA history note

Note 2 – IEA history note

As an example of previous IEA positions here is a June 2014 report: World needs $48 trillion in investment to meet its energy needs to 2035 – News

  • “Of the investment in energy supply, $23 trillion is in fossil fuel extraction, transport and oil refining”   (Fatih Birol was the IEA Chief Economist at the time)
  • Comparing the 2014 statement ($23 trillion) to now “no new oil and natural gas fields are required beyond those that have already been approved for development” shows why the new Roadmap is such a departure for the IEA and why it has prompted such strong responses.

Note 3 – Dasgupta Review and the “Ghastly Future” paper

The “Dasgupta Review” may be found at Final Report – The Economics of Biodiversity: The Dasgupta Review and is also discussed in my previous post; It’s the biosphere, stupid! –

The “Ghastly Future” paper refers to Underestimating the Challenges of Avoiding a Ghastly Future – by Bradshaw Corey J. A., Ehrlich Paul R., Beattie Andrew, Ceballos Gerardo, Crist Eileen, Diamond Joan, Dirzo Rodolfo, Ehrlich Anne H., Harte John, Harte Mary Ellen, Pyke Graham, Raven Peter H., Ripple William J., Saltré Frédérik, Turnbull Christine, Wackernagel Mathis, Blumstein Daniel T.  in Frontiers in Conservation Science.

The abstract from this paper, [with my bulleting and highlighting] is:

  • “We report three major and confronting environmental issues that have received little attention and require urgent action. 
  • First, we review the evidence that future environmental conditions will be far more dangerous than currently believed. The scale of the threats to the biosphere and all its lifeforms—including humanity—is in fact so great that it is difficult to grasp for even well-informed experts. 
  • Second, we ask what political or economic system, or leadership, is prepared to handle the predicted disasters, or even capable of such action
  • Third, this dire situation places an extraordinary responsibility on scientists to speak out candidly and accurately when engaging with government, business, and the public. 
  • We especially draw attention to the lack of appreciation of the enormous challenges to creating a sustainable future. The added stresses to human health, wealth, and well-being will perversely diminish our political capacity to mitigate the erosion of ecosystem services on which society depends. The science underlying these issues is strong, but awareness is weak. Without fully appreciating and broadcasting the scale of the problems and the enormity of the solutions required, society will fail to achieve even modest sustainability goals.”

Note 4 – War

For whatever reason we are capable of banding together, even across national boundaries, to kill each other and cause as much destruction as we can during times of war.  Individual behavior can change to an extraordinary extent and somehow the money always seems available.  Sure, there are the profiteers and others who sit at the sidelines benefiting from the carnage all round, but they will always be with us.

This fight for the biosphere will need similar levels of behavior change and similar international cooperation.

But we need a leap of the imagination.  We have no problem demonizing enemies, providing they are human, in thrall to some perverse ideology or cowed by some monstrous dictator and his apparatus.  What if the demon enemy really is us and the perverse ideology is that of consumption, growth, waste and personal indulgence?

In my previous post I discuss the 6 world regions (China, USA, EU (including the UK!), India, Russia and Japan) that are most important to any healing of the biosphere.  Given the internal political status of those regions and the animosity between some of them them I wonder how they can come together with one goal.  There are some tentative moves.  Will they be enough?

Note 5 – Responses to the IEA NZE Roadmap

From the nuclear guysWorld Nuclear Association response to the International Energy Agency’s Net Zero by 2050 report (18 May 2021)

“The IEA’s Net Zero by 2050 report, released today, concludes that nuclear energy will make a “significant contribution” to their Net Zero Emissions scenario, and will provide an “essential foundation” in the transition to a net-zero energy system.

[The IEA’s Net Zero Emissions scenario] “puts too much faith in technologies that are uncertain, untested, or unreliable and fails to reflect both the size and scope of the contribution nuclear technologies could make”. WNA notes that the NZE scenario’s projection for nuclear growth sees the share of nuclear energy in the global electricity mix falling from 10.5% to 8%. “Given that more than 60% of the world’s electricity is currently generated by fossil fuels, if we are to eliminate them in less than 30 years, the IEA’s assessment of the role of nuclear is highly impractical.”

“WNA notes that, in addition to electricity, nuclear energy can generate zero-carbon heat. “This is an opportunity that the IEA’s report barely touches on. Existing reactors are already being used to provide steam for district heating systems and to produce fresh water. New reactor designs under development and deployment could provide heat and feedstocks for industry (chemicals, steel, concrete, cement), fuels for heavy transport (shipping, aviation) or generate hydrogen directly.”

From the oil and gas guys (American Petroleum Institute) – API | API Statement on IEA Report on Pathway to Net-Zero by 2050

“IEA itself regularly acknowledges that half the technology to reach net zero has not yet been invented. Any pathway to net zero must include continued innovation and use of natural gas and oil, which remains crucial to displacing coal [way to go guys; kick coal while it’s down] in developing nations and enabling renewable energy. Our industry is committed to shaping a cleaner future by advancing technologies and policymaking to reduce emissions while providing the affordable, reliable energy modern life depends on.”

From Forbes –  New IEA Net Zero Roadmap Undermines America’s Energy Security

From the BBCClimate change: Ban new gas boilers from 2025 to reach net-zero

[I find it interesting that this analysis uses the issue of gas boilers as the headline.  But it is a very good example.  Today an entire industry segment – from gas suppliers, pipeline people, boiler manufacturers to the local plumber are selling and servicing high efficiency gas boilers as a cost effective heating solution.  To bring that industry to a full stop in 4 years is a big ask.  Of course, with 20/20 hindsight, if we had pushed (even more efficient) heat pumps 15 years ago life would be easier now. As part of the article the BBC simplifies items from the report, which I repeat here for background]

  • Fossil fuel use falls drastically in the net‐zero emissions scenario by 2050, and no new oil and natural gas fields are required beyond those that have already been approved for development. No new coal mines or mine extensions are required.
  • Emissions from electricity generation fall to net‐zero in advanced economies by 2035 and globally by 2040. Renewables drive the transformation, up from 29% of generation in 2020 to nearly 90% in 2050.
  • The number of public charging points for electric cars rises from around one million today to 40 million by 2030, requiring an annual investment of $90bn by the end of the decade.
  • By 2035, nearly all cars sold globally are electric, and by 2050 nearly all heavy trucks sold are fuel cell or electric.
  • Per capita income from oil and gas in countries that rely on fossil fuel production falls by around 75% from $1,800 to $450 by the 2030s
  • “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 1.5C – make this perhaps the greatest challenge humankind has ever faced,” said Fatih Birol, the IEA Executive Director.  “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 cooperation.”

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