The International Energy Agency has confirmed that the world can bring net human greenhouse gas emissions down to zero by 2060—in line with the Paris agreement’s target of holding the warming of Earth’s climate to less than 2.0ºC above pre-industrial levels, and even its more aspirational goal to keep warming “well below” that figure.
“For the first time,” Simon Evans reports in Carbon Brief, the 2017 edition of the 29-member agency’s annual review of energy technology, “maps a ‘below 2.0ºC’ scenario [that] shows how to limit warming to around 1.75ºC above pre-industrial temperatures this century.”
To give the world a 50-50 chance of keeping global temperature rise below that figure, the IEA says, fossil fuels’ share of global energy supply must fall to 26% by 2060, with coal falling “by 78%, oil by 64%, and natural gas by 47%.” In the agency’s scenario, remaining fossil generation would have to be equipped with carbon capture and sequestration devices.
The report calls the target “technically feasible,” but acknowledges that the political hurdles in speeding up the necessary social and economic transitions are “formidable”. The IEA reaffirmed last autumn that while countries were on track to meet their Paris targets, the targets themselves were not enough to achieve the agreement’s climate goals.
However, a “pathway to net-zero carbon emissions across the energy sector by 2060 exists,” Evans reports, and “it does not rely on unforeseen breakthroughs in innovation.” That path, while “possible”, is nonetheless “narrow, and requires unprecedented action.”
Of 26 clean energy technology sectors the IEA identified in its report, only four—electric vehicles, energy storage, solar, and wind—are on track to achieve market penetrations consistent with limiting warming to 2.0ºC.
The biggest challenge—even before the White House declared its intent to make coal great again in America—will be “the early closure of most of the world’s coal fleet, incurring losses of up to $8.3 trillion by 2060.” To keep below 2.0ºC, the IEA calculates, 1,520 gigawatts of fossil-fired generating capacity must be closed earlier than the affected plants’ anticipated retirement. Of that, 1,285 GW would be coal—roughly the equivalent of closing every coal plant in China, the U.S., Russia, and Poland. The losses calculated by the report’s authors would accrue to the owners of the affected fossil assets.
The IEA study also assumes that “deployment of clean energy technologies, inclusive of those currently available and in the innovation pipeline, is pushed to its maximum practical limits across all key sectors; that all available policy levers are activated throughout the outlook period in every sector worldwide.”
That level of performance “would require unprecedented policy action as well as effort and engagement from all stakeholders.”