Climate researchers and policy experts around the world are singing praise of a study just released by the stodgy International Energy Administration in Paris. “Quite amazing,” said one. “Heartening,” said another. A third one called it, “one of the most important climate analyses ever published.” 

The report offers a blueprint of how the global community might still manage to accomplish the 2015 Paris Agreement’s goal of preventing the planet from warming more than 1.5°C (2.7°F) above the preindustrial temperature. It requires a complete halt to prospecting for new fossil fuels and a breathtaking acceleration of wind and solar energy development. Of course, even analysts gobsmacked by the study have tossed some brickbats. Paul Hawken, editor of Drawdown, his own plan for combating climate change, acidly asked, “Where were [they] for the last 20 years?” He and others remind us that IEA had soft-peddled renewable energy long after it could well have supported it. Still, climate insiders predict the report will help speed up the replacement fossil fuel with wind, solar and other climate-friendly energy.

The king of electricity

Since it was founded in 1974, IEA and its cadre of highly regarded analysts have focused almost exclusively on fossil fuels. Industrialized nations – including the U.S., Japan, Turkey, Canada, and a dozen Western European countries, formed the organization after the oil crisis of the early 1970s. Peaking oil supplies in major producing countries, and fears about the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973, had disrupted oil supplies. Fuel prices soared. To ensure future energy security, the IEA founding nations needed credible statistics on supplies and uses of energy. 

Since the 1950s, scientists had been raising serious concerns about warming caused by burning oil, natural gas, and coal. Carbon-free technologies that could replace these fossil fuels, such as solar panels and windmills, were becoming increasingly economical in the final decades of 20th century. Advocates for renewables accuse IEA of downplaying the feasibility of fossil-free energy long after their technological potential and viability was obvious.  “They under-forecast renewable energy and over-forecast oil reserves,” Hawken says. 

On his LinkedIn page, Fatih Birol, since 2015 Executive Director of IEA, said that the new report is simply a logical extension of its mission. “[F]or many years,” he wrote, “we have been focused on shaping a secure and sustainable energy future for all, which requires transitioning to clean energy.” 

The editor of the news site Front Page Live, Joe Romm, a former Department of Energy official and a long-time close observer of climate policy, credits Birol, who had begun at IEA 26 years ago as chief economist, for changing the culture of an “industry-oriented, conservative organization.”

A big shift in IEA’s institutional attitude seems to have occurred in 2020. Its highly-regarded World Energy Report pronounced solar power “the king of electricity,” cheaper than that generated by gas-fired or new coal plants. In that study, IEA said solar electricity had become 20-50% cheaper than it had stated just two years earlier. And it increased the 2040 forecast for solar electricity by 43% . 

On May 18, 2021, IEA shifted even further from its long-standing pro-fossil-fuel stance. In Net Zero by 2050, it published a road map for how, by working together, the world’s nations could have a 50% chance of achieving the Paris Agreement’s 1.5°C goal. Romm says IEA’s more sanguine assessment of renewable energy reflects its belated determination that “climate change is damn serious.”

One solution of many

Laura Cozzi, IEA’s chief energy modeler, and Timur Gül, head of its energy and policy division, wrote in a recent post that the new plan for battling the climate crisis shouldn’t be considered the solution. Rather, it’s meant “to provide clarity on what delivering on ambitions to reach net zero by 2050 might actually mean in practice.” The two IEA officials explained that the International Panel on Climate Change’s Special Report on Global Warming of  1.5°C, published in 2018, considered 90 different energy paths, each with at least a 50/50 chance of achieving the Paris Agreement’s 1.5°C goal. Eighteen of these scenarios achieve “net zero” – meaning that additions to the atmosphere of carbon dioxide are balanced by equal amounts removed – by 2050. 

(Image credit: IEA)

IPCC, and now IEA, have set their sights on net rather than actual zero emissions because it’s extremely difficult to maintain some needed activities, such as air travel, without fossil fuels. Carbon dioxide released by some such actions must be compensated for with equal emission reductions by other means. Though many climate researchers and activists consider it expedient to permit some fossil fuel use even after mid-century, some worry about making exceptions. Earlier this year, for instance, Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg warned her five-million twitter followers that net-zero targets are “excuses to postpone real action.”

Most of the scenarios in the 2018 IPCC study achieve net zero after the middle of the century. The IEA plan would get there right in 2050 and would keep the peak carbon dioxide in the atmosphere low. The more elevated peak of plans that achieve net zero later would have to be balanced by a period of substantial “negative emissions,” by which more carbon dioxide is withdrawn from the air than is added. But no technique for large-scale negative emissions has yet been tested, apart from tree planting. And adding forest cover might be less feasible by the late 21st century, with less suitable land and a less hospitable climate. Romm says expecting to be bailed out by technologies that don’t yet exist amounts to relying on a plan that handles the most stubborn obstacles by stating, “and then a miracle occurs.” The IEA plan requires relatively low negative emissions. 

The road to 2050

The IEA report asserts clearly that getting to net zero over just the next 40 years requires tapering off fossil fuels starting now, and immediately investing in renewable energy on an unprecedented scale. Over this next decade, the plan assumes that existing technologies will be used. Wind and solar power around the world would quadruple by 2030, doubling the proportion of electricity produced by renewables from 29% to 60%. The number of electric vehicles sold every year would increase 17-fold over the decade, relentlessly boosting electrification and inexorably curbing gasoline usage. 

The IEA plan also requires less waste of energy, replacing inefficient residential boilers with heat pumps, manufacturing increasingly energy-efficient cars and the like. There would need to be reductions in the most energy-lavish behaviors, such as individually commuting by personal vehicles, relying instead more on public transportation and bicycles. With these and a detailed list of other steps, the IEA plan would reduce the amount of energy expended per dollar of Gross Domestic Product by 4% every year through the 2020s. The need for fossil fuel energy would plummet so steeply that oil companies could stop developing new gas and oil fields, and coal companies would need no new mines.

IEA’s crystal ball becomes cloudier after 2030. In the sprint to 2050, the world will need technologies now only in development phases and not yet in production. These include improved batteries for storing electricity; and economical ways of producing hydrogen-which, with its extreme energy density, could become an important portable fuel. The IEA Net Zero road map also anticipates deploying some industrial-scale stations for removing carbon dioxide from the air – direct air capture installations – and novel methods for permanent isolation and storage of carbon dioxide. 

Fossil fuels put on defensive

Nothing in the IEA proposal is entirely new, and much has often been suggested before. But, Romm says, nobody “with the credibility and gravitas of the IEA” has ever published such a detailed, scientifically grounded plan for responding to the daunting challenges of climate change. He says the report gives environmental activists and countries most concerned about climate change ammunition for demanding faster, more-concerted action. To author and activist Bill McKibben, the IEA report amounts to “bombshell.” In a New Yorker commentary, McKibben wrote that it could “very well signal the start of the end of the fossil-fuel era.”

Predictably, fossil-fuel lobbyists, those flat-out rejecting climate science, and leaders of some countries heavily dependent on fossil fuels panned the report. Government officials in Japan and Australia said their countries would not stop investing fossil fuels. In a carefully worded statement, Stephen Comstock, American Petroleum Institute vice president of corporate policy, said that continued supplies of oil and natural gas will be needed for “ensuring adequate affordable and reliable energy to meet growing global needs.” 

But Forbes, the magazine that calls itself the “capitalist tool,” detected a silver lining in the demise of fossil fuels. The headline of an article called the report’s recommendations “The $100 trillion investment opportunity in the climate transformation.”

William Moomaw, an emeritus professor of international environmental policy at Tufts University’s Fletcher School, said the profit motive that created the climate change challenge could not begin to work in reverse to alleviate it. He said that the report bolsters arguments that fossil-fuel infrastructure could be outmoded too soon and become poor investments. That could give financiers pause in considering funding of new projects, supporting the efforts of the disinvestment movement. And he said executives involved in the operation and financing of sectors likely to be disrupted by changing climate conditions, such as agriculture and air travel, will find the report sobering. “I think it’s going to be very important.” 

An important early test of the impact of the IEA report could come at the 26th climate negotiating meeting in Glasgow, Scotland, this coming November. Negotiators from some 190 nations are planning to discuss how they can redouble their efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

See also: Key readings on IEA’s ‘Net Zero by 2050’ report

Daniel Grossman

Daniel Grossman, Ph.D., is an award-winning freelance print journalist and radio and web producer with more than 20 years of experience. He earned his B.S. in physics and his Ph.D. in political science,...