A Closer Look at the IEA's Pathway to Net-Zero by 2050

A Closer Look at the IEA's Pathway to Net-Zero by 2050

Key Points

• The IEA's Net-Zero to 2050 scenario requires massive changes to the global energy infrastructure system and record-setting deployments of renewables and EVs

Current actions by governments in parts of the world will make it extremely difficult for the IEA's scenario to come to fruition

• Drastic consumer behavioural changes and technologies not yet in existence are also both required on the pathway to net-zero by 2050

International Energy Agency Net Zero to 2050 Impractical

The International Energy Agency (IEA) recently released a scenario in which it says the world could reach net-zero energy-related carbon emissions by 2050 and prevent global warming above 1.5°C as a result. In its report, the Paris-based energy watchdog suggests that no new investments into fossil fuels are needed if the world is going to achieve this extremely ambitious goal.

"The pathway to net-zero is narrow but still achievable. If we want to reach net-zero by 2050 we do not need any more investments in new oil, gas and coal projects," said Fatih Birol, Executive Director of the IEA.

Fatih's comments starkly contrast what the IEA had said in its last annual energy outlook about the trillions of dollars of new investment required into the global oil and gas industry to prevent supply shortages through to 2040.

IEA Recommendations for Net-Zero Energy System by 2050

The IEA sets out more than 400 milestones to achieving net-zero by 2050, the most notable of which include:

  • Apart from currently sanctioned projects, there must be no new oil and gas exploration or development of new fields
  • No new pre-construction coal plants are approved for development
  • OPEC's share of global oil supply grows from around 37 per cent in recent years to 52 per cent in 2050
  • By 2030, the world economy is some 40 per cent larger than today but uses 7 per cent less energy, requiring major advancement in energy efficiency and technologies
  • Fossil fuels fall from supplying about 80 per cent of global energy today, to just over 20 per cent by 2050
  • Two-thirds of global energy in 2050 to come from wind, solar, bioenergy, hydro and geothermal, with solar increasing 20x and wind 11x over today's levels
  • Natural gas consumption is to fall by 55 per cent and oil demand by 75 per cent, while coal effectively disappears as an energy source
  • Global electricity sector must reach net zero emissions by 2040
  • 90 per cent of electricity generation to come from renewables by 2050, and most of the rest from nuclear
  • Sales of vehicles with internal combustion engines ends by 2035, with all cars running on electricity or fuel cells by 2050
  • 50 per cent of existing buildings are retrofitted to zero-carbon-ready levels by 2040
  • Total annual clean energy investment increases by nearly 4x to over USD $4 trillion by 2030
  • Critical minerals demand increases from under 10 million tonnes (MT) in 2020 to over 40 MT in 2050
  • Drastic behavioural changes by people who are required to take a backseat to the transition and potentially relocate to work in "green" jobs, creating massive shockwaves in rural communities found close to fossil fuel resources

Since its release, the IEA has received backlash of sorts from several countries and organizations worldwide, which have all said that the scenario is unlikely to happen for a number of reasons.

Today there stands several real-world examples that show why we should all take a closer look at the IEA's pathway to net-zero by 2050.

#1 - Needs Global Consensus

Global Oil Demand Projections in Emerging and Market Economies to 2040

Indeed, there is evidence and hope that developed economies in Europe and North America can make the massive switch in energy sources needed for net-zero emissions - eventually. But the lack of actionable support shown by governments in other parts of the world brings into question the feasibility of the IEA's ambitious scenario altogether.

The IEA's pathway to net-zero by 2050 will likely be met with less enthusiasm in Asia, a part of the world with several emerging markets and developing economies that are increasingly in need of cheap and reliable forms of energy.

China, the world's biggest miner, importer and consumer of coal, shows no signs that it intends to wean itself off the most emission-intensive fossil fuel. Home to roughly 1.4 billion people, the nation is continuing its massive build-out of coal-fired power generation, with more than 88 gigawatts currently under construction (equal to about half of the world's total) and hundreds of more projects proposed.

India, another major population centre of the world, is also ramping up the construction of coal-fired power plants while investing billions in other fossil fuel infrastructure.

During an online summit in March, Raj Kumar Singh, India's Minister of Energy, suggested that reaching net-zero by 2050 is not realistic for his country, and for good reason.

"You have 800 million people who do not have access to electricity. You can't say that they have to go to net zero. They have to develop. They want a higher standard of living for their people, and you can't stop it," he said.

LNG Canada - removing 10% of Canada's total CO2 emissions per year-01

China and India aren't the only nations continuing to invest in coal. Japan, Indonesia and other Asian countries are also building dozens of more coal-fired power plants with lifecycles that extend for 40 years or more. These countries are also turning their attention towards liquefied natural gas (LNG) as a new means of fulfilling their future energy needs.

Global demand for LNG will increase drastically over the coming decades, with a projected 200 megatonnes of new liquefaction capacity required by 2050 to keep up with demand. Meanwhile, the IEA's World Energy Outlook 2020 projects that oil demand in emerging market and developing economies – like many found in the Asia-Pacific region – would grow to 60.1 million barrels per day (bpd) by 2040, up from 46.4 million in 2019.

Despite their commitments to net-zero emissions by 2050, several nations in this area of the world are taking a half-hearted approach to the energy transition by continuing to increase their use of fossil fuels while building new power generation that utilizes these energy sources.

In other words, the massive switch to renewable electricity globally required for the net-zero by 2050 scenario to come to fruition - especially in major population centres such as China and India - is unlikely to happen anytime soon.

#2 - Volume of EVs and Renewables

NEW - BP Outlook 2020 BAU Share of Primary Energy to 2050 by Source JPG-04

Massive new deployment of renewable energy is needed in the IEA's pathway to net-zero by 2050. According to the report, new solar power additions will have to reach 630 gigawatts (GW) and wind power 390 GW a year by 2030 – approximately four times the record set in 2020.

For solar power, this is equivalent to installing the world's current largest solar park once a day. These projects can take years to construct and have environmental challenges of their own.

The IEA says that electric vehicle sales would also have to account for the lion's share of global car sales – up from 5 per cent today to more than 60 per cent in 2030. Total EV sales would have to increase 18x, up to more than 55 million annually, while the number of public charging points would have to rise from around 1 million today to 40 million by 2030.

Drastic changes in EV technologies would also have to occur to make these vehicles more appealing for consumers, as current pricing and distance limitations make many EVs unfeasible to purchase.

Take Canada, for example, where the federal government has aggressively introduced new policies such as national cash rebates to help convince more Canadians to buy an electric car. However, these initiatives haven't been hugely successful, with analysis showing that Transport Canada is expected to be drastically short of its EV sales targets set for 2025 and 2030.

Will the world be capable of the massive deployment of renewables and sales of EVs required to adhere to the net-zero pathway in the coming decades? Maybe, but the evidence suggests that it's unlikely.

#3 - Relies on Non-Existent Tech

Global Oil and Natural Gas Pipeline Length Forecasts 2021 Beyond

A major worldwide push to increase energy efficiency by 4 per cent per annum through to 2030 is an instrumental part of the IEA's pathway to net-zero – a rate which is about three-times the average seen over the past two decades.

The unfortunate part is that, according to the IEA, reaching net-zero by 2050 "…requires further rapid deployment of available technologies as well as the widespread use of technologies that are not on the market yet."

While most of the global reduction in carbon emissions to 2030 comes from technologies readily available today, that figure changes drastically in the decades ahead. The IEA says that by 2050, almost half of CO2 emission reductions will have to come from technologies that are currently in the demonstration or prototype phase. This becomes even more challenging in heavy industry and long-distance transport.

At the American Petroleum Institute, Stephen Comstock, Vice President of Corporate Policy, makes a good point about the world's technological challenges on a 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 in developing nations and enabling renewable energy," he said in a statement released by the API.

Fossil fuels support global supply chains and are fundamental in providing us with the food, shelter, healthcare, transportation and other daily necessities we all rely on. Reducing emissions is a must, but abandoning fossil fuels today for energy alternatives that have not yet been created carries significant risk.

#4 - Drastic Behavioural Changes

Oil and Gas Lifecycle Emissions Chart

A transition of the scale and speed laid out by the IEA's net-zero to 2050 scenario cannot be achieved without the continued support of and participation by global citizens. Behavioural changes required - particularly in developed parts of the world - include walking, cycling or using public transport instead of driving, foregoing a long-haul flight, and hang-drying your laundry to name a few examples.

In some instances, behavioural changes would be encouraged by new laws or regulations introduced by governments. Policies such as phasing out internal combustion cars from large cities and reducing speed limits to under 100 kilometres an hour on motorways would help bring about such changes.

The IEA also notes that while 14 million new jobs are created by 2030, about 5 million are lost. Moreover, most of these lost jobs are high-paying and found close to fossil fuel resources, potentially creating significant shocks to communities with lasting socio-economic impacts.

New sources of income created in the net-zero scenario "…are unlikely to compensate fully for the drop in oil and gas income," says the IEA. Fossil fuel workers will have to relocate and learn new skills to get a job in the future economy, displacing countless rural communities around the world.

#5 – Use of Biofuels and Nuclear

The IEA's net-zero scenario requires 60 per cent growth in bioenergy use to 104 exajoules (EJ) in 2050, up from 65 EJ in 2020. The sheer amount of land necessary to make this a reality – approximately 41 million hectares in 2050, according to the IEA – is an area the size of India and Pakistan combined.

Some environmentalists are worried about the sheer size of land required for new biofuel production, emphasizing the importance of forests and land for naturally occurring carbon capture that prevents the release of emissions into the atmosphere.

The World Nuclear Association (WNA) is also not so sure of the practicality of the pathway. "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. If we are to eliminate fossil fuels in less than 30 years, the IEA's assessment of the role of nuclear is highly impractical."

According to the IEA, nuclear power generation will have to increase by 40 per cent by 2030 and then double by 2050, with new nuclear capacity additions reaching 30 GW annually in the early 2030s.

"By depending so much on such a massive expansion of intermittent wind and solar, and consequently relying so heavily on as yet unproven at scale modern bioenergy, battery storage and hydrogen to cover for this intermittency, the IEA's NZE scenario carries with it a high degree of unnecessary risk."

The WNA is concerned that the mass expansion of wind and solar batteries could place enormous strain on the supply of minerals and metals required in production. This, in turn, could hinder the speed of the energy transition and make it much more expensive.

Nuclear's relatively small mineral and land footprint make it an ideal form of energy to help the world reduce energy-related emissions. Still, the IEA doesn't seem to incorporate this form of generation as much as would be necessary for a more plausible pathway to net-zero by 2050.

The World Needs More Canadian Resources

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The evidence is in, and it all points toward one thing: that the IEA's Net-Zero by 2050 report is aspirational in nature but not practical with today’s technology. 

Most developing countries – a major source of projected future growth in oil demand – will take the path of least resistance when it comes to energy supply and are highly unlikely to undergo the scenario's drastic and expensive changes. For example, the historical patterns of oil demand after recessions in the past have always returned to pre-crisis levels and then grown exceptionally higher thereafter.

Even if the IEA's recommendations were a precise prediction of the future, the world's push towards a greener future would only support the idea that the global supply of oil, natural gas, minerals, metals and everything in between should come from environmentally responsible suppliers.

Canada, a top performer in Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) metrics amongst international peers, is a world leader in the sustainable production of natural resources and should be a global supplier of choice for all of the above!

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