Net zero global emissions by 2050? The IEA's outlook is unrealistic

Net zero global emissions by 2050? The IEA's outlook is unrealistic
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The International Energy Agency (IEA) is a group of 30 countries that purchase oil and gas from abroad. The United States, United Kingdom, Canada and others created the IEA in 1974, right after the first oil shock to protect their interests against major oil- and gas-producing nations who had begun colluding to manipulate the market. This mission continued for nearly 50 years, but recently the IEA has involved itself in long-term policy advice concerning climate issues. The problem is that the IEA’s advice has turned foolhardy and, if the world were to follow it, we would see a new Dark Age. 

Last week, the IEA issued a report on how the global energy ecosystem can reach net zero energy-related carbon dioxide emissions by 2050. According to this report, no new oil and natural gas fields can be approved for development from now on. Moreover, automakers would need to stop selling new internal combustion engine vehicles by 2035. Despite the continued growth of the global population and modernization of all economies, global energy demand would need to decrease by 8 percent, likely meaning literal dark times ahead for at least some of the world’s people. 

Perhaps most shocking, it would mean the need to install, every day between now and 2050, at least one solar power plant equivalent to the world’s current largest solar facility. That is not only unfeasible; it would crowd out people and destroy natural habitats across the planet. And these are only a few of the radical ideas the IEA report calls for. 

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In total, the IEA Net Zero by 2050 report makes 400 recommendations. The IEA’s advice does not make sense, and it is not practical. The recommendations rely on putting technologies into use that are still in development stages, at best. This report calls for cutting back on reliable legacy energies in a fantasy that we can rely on unreliable energy sources. Moreover, it suggests ending new discoveries of oil and gas — and drastically decreasing their overall use — while, at the same time, it promotes energy and transportation technologies that rely on oil and gas to build and maintain their components.  

As a document, this report’s extreme ideas should serve best to persuade the world that it is impossible to achieve net zero emissions from energy by 2050. If this is the plan, we can see what a waste of money it would be to pursue such a goal. But if the IEA intended to point to realistic and monetarily feasible ways to reduce global emissions from energy, the agency failed. In fact, according to the IEA’s own data — which was not utilized in the report but is available from the organization — natural gas has been the most important transition energy source in the past three decades, not solar or wind. 

IEA data reveal that between 1990 and 2018, natural gas was the key to keeping the lights on in a world with a growing population — now at around 7.9 billion people — and an ever-growing need for electricity. As a percentage of fuel used globally, natural gas increased from 14.7 percent in 1990 to 23.01 percent in 2018. This was vital, because as electricity demand grew, the percentage of electricity generated from coal remained essentially constant. Combined, the solar and wind portion of electricity only grew from 0.04 percent to 6.88 percent — an admirable jump, but not enough to show a trajectory that could satisfy the IEA’s fantasies by 2050 or any time soon after.

Hydro and nuclear power actually decreased as proportions in the global power generation mix. It is simply too expensive and difficult to build new plants of either kind. Moreover, countries such as Japan and Germany have been actively decommissioning nuclear power facilities.

Hydro and nuclear power generation do not emit greenhouse gases, so they would have helped achieve the IEA’s goal, but they just are not doing it. We need natural gas, in particular, if we are to keep the lights on. We especially need natural gas if we want to cut the global dependence on dirty coal. It’s the only option.

Ellen R. Wald is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Center and the president of Transversal Consulting, a global energy and geopolitics consultancy. She is the author of “Saudi, Inc.,” a history of Aramco and how the Saudi royal family controls this multitrillion-dollar enterprise. Follow her on Twitter @EnergzdEconomy.