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Here’s how the International Energy Agency says we can get to net-zero energy by 2050

No new oil and gas projects plus pouring money into clean energy is just the start.

Here’s how the International Energy Agency says we can get to net-zero energy by 2050
[Photo: Jui-Chi Chan/iStock]
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In the next 30 years, the world needs to get to net-zero emissions from energy—meaning that the amount of greenhouse gas emissions from transportation, electricity, buildings, heating, and industry will need to shrink so much that it can be balanced out by carbon sinks such as forests and technology that can suck carbon from the atmosphere. A new report from the International Energy Agency lays out exactly what it would take to reach the goal. Here are a few of the most important steps.

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No new oil and gas projects

Starting this year, the report says, no new oil and gas fields should be approved for development. “The industry has used IEA scenarios as a shield to justify its continued investment in oil and gas for a very long time, so this switch is quite momentous,” Andrew Logan, senior director of oil and gas at the nonprofit Ceres, said in a statement. “It’s going to be an interesting reality check for companies, but also for investors, and will put engagement in very stark terms.” The report says that the world also can’t build any more new coal mines or approve new unabated coal power plants.

A surge in clean energy investment

By 2030, the road map suggests that energy investment will grow to $5 trillion a year, creating around 14 million new jobs. We’ll spend hundreds of billions more annually on electric grids. The number of charging stations for electric vehicles will grow from around 1 million today to 40 million by the end of the decade. Battery production will grow from 160 gigawatt-hours today to 6,660 gigawatt-hours in 2030, roughly as much as building 20 new gigafactories every year. We’ll need to invest in other new infrastructure, including pipelines to carry hydrogen and captured CO2.

An immediate push to deploy clean tech

To be on track to reach net zero in 2050, the world has to roll out climate-friendly tech at a massive scale right now. We’ll need to build huge new amounts of wind and solar power—for solar, the equivalent of installing the largest solar plant in the world every day for the rest of the decade. The model also includes new hydropower and nuclear power. Electric car sales will have to go from around 5% of total car sales to 60% of car sales by 2030; by 2035, there will be no more gas and diesel car sales, and half of heavy-duty truck sales will be electric. All new buildings will need to be “zero-carbon-ready” by the end of the decade.

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R&D in new technology

We can take immediate action now. “All the technologies needed to achieve the necessary deep cuts in global emissions by 2030 already exist, and the policies that can drive their deployment are already proven,” the report says. But the 2050 goal does require new innovation, especially in technology that can decarbonize heavy industry and long-distance transportation in planes and ships. Roughly half of the reductions that are needed by midcentury come from technology that’s at a very early stage now. Governments need to increase R&D spending so new tech is ready in time, the report says.

You’ll have to make changes too

Even though many of the changes have to happen in large-scale systems, the road map assumes that individuals will also make changes. More than half of the cumulative emissions reductions come from choices that consumers make, such as buying electric vehicles or installing a heat pump at home. (By 2040, the model suggests that half of all heating globally will come from heat pumps.) Changes in behavior, such as choosing to walk or bike instead of driving, adjusting the thermostat, and taking fewer flights, account for 4% of emissions reductions.

A net-zero world

By 2050, the road map assumes that electricity generation will grow more than two and a half times to cover increased demand from transportation, industry, and buildings. Around 90% of the world’s electricity will come from renewables, with 70% from solar, the world’s largest energy source, or wind; the rest will come from nuclear. Cars will run on electricity or fuel cells. Everything will become more efficient, so even as the global economy nearly doubles and the population grows by 2 billion, we’ll be using 8% less energy.

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Fossil fuels will hugely decline, but the model assumes that they’ll still be used in plastic and in sectors that have few low-carbon options. Some carbon removal, through new technologies such as direct air capture, will also be necessary. All of this is feasible but will require an effort that far exceeds the climate action the world has managed to take so far. “The scale and speed of the efforts demanded by this critical and formidable goal—our best chance of tackling climate change and limiting global warming to 1.5°C—make this perhaps the greatest challenge humankind has ever faced,” Fatih Birol, the IEA executive director, said in a statement.

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."

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