A highly anticipated report released yesterday by the International Energy Agency on how to transition the world to a net-zero energy system by 2050 calls for “nothing less than a complete transformation of how we produce, transport, and consume energy.” At the same time, the report, Net Zero by 2050: A Roadmap for the Global Energy Sector, characterizes its preferred road to net zero as the one “most technically feasible, cost-effective, and socially acceptable.”
That road, while relying primarily on renewable energy, keeps a lane open for nuclear, which, the report says, will make a “significant contribution” and “provide an essential foundation for transitions.”
According to the 224-page document, the climate pledges made so far by the world’s governments, even if fully kept, will fall far short of what is necessary to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to net zero by 2050 and provide the world with a solid chance of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5°C (the goal of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). The pathway to net zero “remains narrow and extremely challenging,” warns the report, “requiring all stakeholders—governments, businesses, investors, and citizens—to take action this year and every year after so that the goal does not slip out of reach.”
No rest areas: “The world has a huge challenge ahead of it to move net zero by 2050 from a narrow possibility to a practical reality,” notes IEA Executive Director Fatih Berol in the report’s foreword. “Global carbon dioxide emissions are already rebounding sharply as economies recover from last year’s pandemic-induced shock. It is past time for governments to act, and act decisively, to accelerate the clean energy transformation.”
The IEA sets out more than 400 milestones in its report, spanning all sectors and technologies, for what needs to happen and when. Key milestones in the electricity and heat sector include a phaseout of unabated coal plants in advanced economies and 1,020 GW of annual solar and wind additions by 2030; overall net-zero electricity generation in advanced economies by 2035; net-zero electricity generation globally and a phaseout of all unabated coal and oil power plants by 2040; and some 90 percent of electricity generation globally from renewables by 2050, with solar PV and wind accounting for nearly 70 percent of that.
Nuclear’s role: Most of the remainder of electricity generation in 2050 is to come from nuclear energy—a somewhat disappointing share of the power mix to many nuclear advocates. In a response to the IEA report, the U.K.-based World Nuclear Association applauded the agency’s recognition of nuclear, but added, “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.”