The criticality of the global energy situation is emphasised by the release, on schedule (18-5-21), of the eagerly awaited “Net Zero by 2050” roadmap (NZE) from the International Energy Agency (IEA).
Not only does this document delineate the gargantuan quantities of energy currently used by humans on Earth, mainly from the fossil fuels, but the enormity of change necessary to bring their emissions to net zero by 2050. [It is thought this would give a 50:50 chance of limiting the rise in global average temperature to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels by 2100].
Although NZE is a guide, not a mandate, it fully identifies the steepness of the terrain that must be negotiated, with no new oil or gas fields to be approved, as of 2021. Instead, oil and gas producers would concentrate on output from existing fields, and in reducing any associated emissions. New coal mines and additional unabated coal fired power plants are also ruled out.
Given that various governments, including that of the UK, who commissioned the report, are set to endorse various new fossil fuel projects, and oil companies continue to invest in new production, this particular criterion may prove difficult to meet.
The publication of the roadmap is timed in anticipation of the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26) of the United Nations Climate Change Framework Convention in Glasgow in November, whose high-level discussions it aims to inform. Even if the climate pledges made to date by the world’s governments were entirely fulfilled, the resulting reduction in global energy-related CO2 emissions would be insufficient to bring them to net zero by 2050; hence, more drastic and urgent action is essential.
Broadly, the NZE emissions reductions are comparable with those scenarios set out in the IPCC Special Report on 1.5°C, published in 2018, that yield net-zero CO2 energy sector and industrial process emissions in 2050, although there are important structural differences, including avoiding “overshoot”. In particular, NZE depends less on bioenergy and carbon capture (CCUS/BECCS) technologies, but more on direct emissions reductions, with a greater share of wind and solar energy being introduced. Thus, the NZE vs (IPCC) figures for 2050 are: fossil energy use = 120 EJ (184); overall energy use = 344 EJ (404); wind/solar share = 70% (53%); CCS = 7.6 Gt (8.4); BECCS = 1.9 Gt (4.5); bioenergy = 102 EJ (152)
A doubling of current nuclear power (and also of hydroelectric capacity) is anticipated, which might raise some eyebrows. However, without it, much more solar PV and wind energy is necessary. Thus, in the NZE “low nuclear and CCUS” case (with nuclear 60% lower in 2050 than for NZE and only the existing planned CCUS projects completed) an additional 2,400GW of solar and wind capacity would be needed to compensate for the shortfall. In addition, around 480GW of battery capacity would be necessary, on top of the 3,100GW planned in NZE, and an extra 300GW of other dispatchable capacity to cope with seasonal energy demand.
Profound changes must already have been made by 2030, to garner sufficient momentum that the NZE target can be reached “by 2050”. Such intense transformation is also necessary given the very tight remaining global carbon budget, and to minimise locking-in high emissions infrastructure. Thus, an immediate and massive deployment of all available clean and efficient energy technologies must be undertaken, with respective annual additions of solar PV and of wind power to reach 630 GW and 390 GW by 2030. Together, this is four times the record level set in 2020. For solar PV, it is equivalent to installing the world’s current largest solar park [1,000 MW] roughly every day.
Energy efficiency (i.e. MJ of energy used per $ GDP generated) is also a significant feature of the roadmap, and which must increase by 4% per year, up to 2030, i.e. a trebling of the average over the past two decades. In 2030, 60% of new cars sold globally would be electric vehicles.
The NZE scenario has critical implications for global oil demand, which would need to fall from 88 million barrels a day (mbd) in 2020, to 72 mbd in 2030; reaching 24 mbd in 2050 (an overall annual decline of -4.2%). If all further investment in those fields now producing were to cease, the global oil supply would decline by -8%/year, but the IEA estimate that this can be braked at -4.5% by allowing continued investment in existing fields, including those already approved for development. However, a delicate balancing act is required, since if the resulting loss of oil is not adequately matched in step by alternatives such as EVs, discontinuities may appear in the energy supply chain, with impacts on critical functions, e.g. transportation.
Thus, governments need proactively to anticipate energy security risks surrounding market concentration, critical minerals and an increased reliance on electricity systems, including their vulnerability to cyber attack: in 2050, almost 50% of global energy would be used in the form of electricity, up from 20% in 2020. This will necessitate a huge increase in the production of lithium, cobalt, nickel, graphite, rare earths and copper, whose supplies must be secured by individual nations. As the mining or processing of these resources is concentrated in only a few countries, potential geopolitical problems seem almost inevitable.
If entirely implemented, the global energy landscape would be almost unrecognisable, as NZE summarises:
“By 2050, the energy world looks completely different. Global energy demand is around 8% smaller than today, but it serves an economy more than twice as big and a population with 2 billion more people. Almost 90% of electricity generation comes from renewable sources, with wind and solar PV together accounting for almost 70%. Most of the remainder comes from nuclear power. Solar is the world’s single largest source of total energy supply. Fossil fuels fall from almost four-fifths of total energy supply today to slightly over one-fifth. Fossil fuels that remain are 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.”
NZE is an attempt at “business as usual”: of trying to maintain the mechanics of current civilization, but with energy largely provided from renewable sources, instead of fossil fuels. In a practical sense, “renewable” is a misnomer, since although the power of the sun, and of the wind which it also drives, is effectively endless, acquiring useful energy, still depends on minerals mined from the Earth, and which are subject to the inevitability of depletion, the same as the fossil fuels are now. To some extent, this can be mitigated by recycling, but there are energy costs and the need to create new infrastructure on a very large scale to do this.
Meanwhile, until the new low carbon energy system has attained a sufficient size to feed back energy to build and maintain itself, fossil fuel energy will be required to subsidise its growth. Hence, the questions arise of, how much energy do we really need, and [how] might we manage with [a lot] less of it?
Indeed, while energy is the critical underpinning factor for future society, it is not the only point of issue, and we are presented with an opportunity to reimagine that society. It is noteworthy that the richest 10% of humans on Earth produce 52% of its total emissions (of which 15% are produced by the “top” 1%); hence, this is where the major behavioural changes (a critical feature of NZE) must be made.
In all probability, the NZE projections both in terms of energy saving and changing our behaviour must be transcended considerably, if we are to deal with all aspects of a changing climate. The fundamental concept of “net zero”, has recently been challenged as a “dangerous trap”, in that it might be used to defer action that should be taken immediately, continuing to burn fossil fuels as part of a business plan that assumes carbon emissions will be cleaned up later, using technology as yet to be applied on the massive scale.
Globally, the energy costs of transportation run to 21% of primary energy consumption; hence, a curbing of the unnecessary movement of people or goods (including food and energy) could considerably reduce the amount of low carbon energy that must be produced.
Indeed, relocalisation has been proposed as the best single approach to reducing demand for oil and resources of all kinds, while building resilience into our communities and societies. The process of relocalisation implicitly involves many other re-words, all of which ameliorate demand for energy and other resources, e.g. reduce, reuse, recycle… repair, repurpose, replace, refill, rethink, redesign, reimagine, reinvent, regenerate, restore, respond, refuse!
To tackle the global problem of climate change will require unparalleled coordination and collaboration across societies and between nations. Without the international cooperation assumed in NZE, the transition to net‐zero emissions “would be delayed by decades”, thus greatly increasing the chances of missing the 1.5 oC target. At a time when the peoples of the world are becoming increasingly fragmented and divided, along with potential production and supply issues, this does not appear unlikely.
In any case, to focus primarily on eliminating carbon emissions is too narrow: the problems confronting humanity are actually systemic in nature, and not resolved by changing the source(s) of our energy alone, while degradation of the natural environment and depletion of resources continue.
Indeed, we can list energy and carbon emissions along with many other of the “world’s woes”, such as loss of biodiversity and habitat, pollinator decline, soil erosion, and a consumption of close to 100 billion tonnes of materials every year (even allowing for a substitution of coal, gas and oil by other minerals), which, acting in concert, comprise what has been termed the “changing climate”.
The world food system and (as part of it) deforestation are major contributors to this overall degradative mechanism. Potential biodiversity threats from mining the necessary minerals for renewable energy, are also likely to be exacerbated.
Thus, in our quest for Net Zero carbon emissions, what if we exhaust our resources – of which the most precious is time – in a last ditch attempt to prop up a system that fails us anyway? What then?
Teaser photo credit; By NASA/Apollo 17 crew; taken by either Harrison Schmitt or Ron Evans – https://web.archive.org/web/20160112123725/http://grin.hq.nasa.gov/ABSTRACTS/GPN-2000-001138.html (image link); see also https://www.nasa.gov/multimedia/imagegallery/image_feature_329.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=43894484