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New IEA report shows “extraordinary growth” in clean energy is keeping narrowing 1.5°C goal alive

Updated: Oct 3, 2023

wind turbines against sunset
Image Credit: Karsten Würth // Unsplash

  • The International Energy Agency released its second Net Zero Roadmap which, while recognizing the need to end fossil fuel development amidst a moment of continued drilling, shows hope in the fight to stay below 1.5°C of warming.

  • The biggest takeaway from the report is that while the door for the goal has narrowed over the last two years, it coincided with a drastic increase in renewables and other clean energy technologies that have served as a doorstop, keeping the goal within reach.

  • Usage of clean tech is on the rise. For example, did you know heat pumps rose by 11% in the U.S. last year, historically overtaking gas furnaces for the first time ever?

  • The report outlines specific tangible goals the world needs to achieve, like tripling renewable energy capacity by 2030, and how it can be achieved through policy that focuses on factors like infrastructure, permitting, and grid resiliency.

  • However, if the 2030 ambition is not met, the report shows that delayed action will result in the necessity of technology that scrubs carbon from the atmosphere, which, while has made recent strides, is not yet proven at a global scale.

Let’s set the stage. In 2021 when the International Energy Agency (IEA) released its first Net Zero Roadmap, it called for “a total transformation” of the world’s energy systems if we hope to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 to minimize the worst effects of climate change.

Now, that total transformation is underway with IEA figures showing renewable energy deployments hitting a new record in 2023, electric vehicle sales expected to leap 35% after last year's boom, and renewable and energy-efficient home appliances like heat pumps rising by about 11% in the U.S. last year, historically overtaking gas furnace sales after years of practically equal growth. That’s huge.

That’s why, as the IEA’s 2023 Net Zero Roadmap, published earlier this week, shows, clean energy technologies are what’s keeping the 1.5 °C goal – the temperature increase the world needs to stay under to avoid the worst effects of climate change, as agreed upon at the Paris Climate Summit – alive even though over the last two years its narrowed.

That’s why the report stresses “bolder action” is needed.

In 2022, energy sector carbon dioxide emissions reached a new record. While domestically, the Biden administration has offered the fewest offshore oil and gas leases in the nation’s history with plans to not have any in 2024, globally, drillers are increasing operations.

However, according to the IEA tangible goals like tripling the global renewable energy capacity by 2030, doubling the annual rate of energy efficiency improvements, increasing the sales of EVs and heat pumps, and falling energy sector methane emissions, will position us to accomplish 80% of necessary emission reductions by the end of the decade.

“Keeping alive the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 °C requires the world to come together quickly. The good news is we know what we need to do – and how to do it. Our 2023 Net Zero Roadmap, based on the latest data and analysis, shows a path forward,” IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol said in a statement.

“But we also have a very clear message: Strong international cooperation is crucial to success," she added. "Governments need to separate climate from geopolitics, given the scale of the challenge at hand.”

As the report outlines the goals in the roadmap can be achieved through policy actions like speeding up permitting for renewable energy projects, modernizing grids, and addressing supply chain bottlenecks.

The report emphasizes that getting to net zero is an international effort, and while it does underscore that developing nations need more time and support to transition and advanced economies should carry the brunt of the transition, an equitable world in the face of climate change means an international transition completely away from fossil fuels.

The report also takes this idea a step further saying that all countries need to move up their targeted net zero dates to reach the global goal of reaching net zero by 2050.

Still, it notes that the biggest barriers to this are infrastructure. While innovation is already delivering new tools and steadily lowering the cost, infrastructure networks around renewables outside of solar and battery, which currently have the most momentum, need to be built out, the report states because solar and batteries can’t get the job done in a cyclone.

This could mean repurposing old networks, using low-emission fuels, more nuclear power, fitting smokestacks with carbon capture technology, and setting aside larger land areas for renewables, the report shows in a non-exhaustive list.

smokestacks against an orange sky
Image Credit: Marek Piwnicki // Unsplash

If policy is not altered with the urgency of the climate crisis and efforts are not ramped up, the IEA says that direct air capture (DAC), which vacuums carbon from the atmosphere, and other carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS) tech will shift from a smaller piece in the net zero scenario to very necessary.

However, the report serves as a reminder that while historic investments in the technology have been made in recent years, with the world’s biggest carbon capture facility currently being built in Texas, the technologies have yet to be proven “at scale.”

In what the IEA calls the Delayed Action Case, where the world does not ramp up policy, implementation, and financing, nearly 5 billion tons of carbon dioxide will have to be removed from the atmosphere every year until 2100. This figure is based on the amount of carbon that will be emitted in the absence of renewable expansion.

If scrubbing the atmosphere of that much carbon fails, “returning the temperature to 1.5 °C would not be possible” the report’s briefing reads.

“Removing carbon from the atmosphere is very costly. We must do everything possible to stop putting it there in the first place,” Birol said in a statement.

“The pathway to 1.5 °C has narrowed in the past two years, but clean energy technologies are keeping it open,” she added.

“With international momentum building behind key global targets such as tripling renewable capacity and doubling energy efficiency by 2030, which would together lead to a stronger decline in fossil fuel demand this decade, the COP28 climate summit in Dubai is a vital opportunity to commit to stronger ambition and implementation in the remaining years of this critical decade.”

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