A new report by one of the planet’s most influential energy organizations says that nuclear energy should play a significant role in the challenge to create a net-zero emissions energy sector by 2050.
The climate change challenge creates a “narrow” focus for energy transformation, said the International Energy Agency report. However it will require “an unprecedented transformation of how energy is produced, transported and used globally.”
Among the surprises, report envisions a shrinking demand for energy, putting consumption 8 percent smaller than today, even as it serves an economy more than twice as large as today’s and a global population larger by 2 billion more people.
The generation mix of the future, says the report: “Almost 90 percent of electricity generation comes from renewable sources, with wind and solar PV together accounting for almost 70 percent. Most of the remainder comes from nuclear power.”
Solar is viewed as the planet-saver. It is, after all, “the world’s single largest source of total energy supply.” In the meantime, fossil fuels fall from almost four-fifths of total energy supply today to slightly over one-fifth. If it were not a necessity on an industrial level, fossil fuel consumption would likely be smaller. However, as it is “fossil fuels that remain [would 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.
Repeating a concern that has been widely accepted by the scientific community, “Climate pledges by governments to date – even if fully achieved – would fall well short of what is required to bring global energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions to net zero by 2050,” says the report Net Zero by 2050: A Roadmap for the Global Energy Sector. If accomplished, net zero at 2050 “would give the world an even chance at limiting the global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Centigrade.,” a yardstick frequently cited as one that would limit the catastrophe of climate change to arguably acceptable levels.
The report is the agency’s first globally comprehensive study of how to transition to a net zero energy system by 2050 while ensuring stable and affordable energy supplies, providing universal energy access, and enabling robust economic growth, which is to say it combines scientific specifications with political expectations represented by economic concerns. The report also outlines a “cost-effective and economically productive pathway, resulting in a clean, dynamic and resilient energy economy.” As expected, the energy future, according to the report, would be “dominated by renewables like solar and wind instead of fossil fuels.”
In addition, the report examines the roles of bioenergy, carbon capture and behavioural changes, which the agency calls “key uncertainties.”
“Our Roadmap shows the priority actions that are needed today to ensure the opportunity of net-zero emissions by 2050 – narrow but still achievable – 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 °C – 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 onto that pathway requires strong and credible policy actions from governments, underpinned by much greater international cooperation.”
The report sets out more than 400 milestones that would help put the planet reach net zero emissions by 2050. These include, strikingly, no investment in new fossil fuel supply projects, and no further final investment decisions for new unabated coal plants. In addition, by 2035, there would be no sales of new internal combustion engine passenger cars. Further, it is assumed “by 2040, the global electricity sector has already reached net-zero emissions.”
In the near term, the report describes a net zero pathway that requires the immediate and massive deployment of all available clean and efficient energy technologies, combined with a major global push to accelerate innovation. The pathway calls for annual additions of solar PV to reach 630 gigawatts by 2030, and those of wind power to reach 390 gigawatts. Together, this is four times the record level set in 2020.
The report validates the conundrum that solar power has a long, long way to go to accomplish this mission. The pace of improvement required, essentially, “is equivalent to installing the world’s current largest solar park roughly every day. A major worldwide push to increase energy efficiency is also an essential part of these efforts, resulting in the global rate of energy efficiency improvements averaging 4 percent a year through 2030 – about three times the average over the last two decades.”
Most of the global reductions in CO2 emissions between now and 2030 in the net zero pathway come from technologies readily available today. But in 2050, almost half the reductions come from technologies that are currently only at the demonstration or prototype phase. This demands that governments quickly increase their 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. Progress in the areas of advanced batteries, electrolysers for hydrogen, and direct air capture and storage can be particularly impactful.
Total annual energy investment surges to USD 5 trillion by 2030 in the net zero pathway, 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 the engineering, manufacturing and construction industries. All of this puts global GDP 4 percent higher in 2030 than it would reach based on current trends.
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