IEA’s global roadmap for net-zero energy emissions: Insights for China

by Muyi Yang and Xunpeng Shi | Jun 4, 2021

The International Energy Agency (IEA) recently released a new report Net Zero by 2050: A Roadmap for the Global Energy Sector. It sets out a comprehensive global roadmap with over 400 milestones for achieving net-zero energy emissions by the mid-century – essential for limiting global warming to 1.5℃. As follows are key aspects of the IEA roadmap with particular emphasis on insights for China. These are adapted from our full article appearing in China Petrochemical News, later reproduced by the International Society for Energy Transition Studies (ISETS).

what does IEA net zero mean for the power sector

The IEA’s vision for clean electricity

As envisioned in the IEA roadmap, achieving net-zero energy emissions globally will be led by a clean electricity revolution, due primarily to the relatively high level of technology readiness of the electricity industry and the growing attractiveness of electricity as an option for decarbonising other sectors, either directly or indirectly.

Some key milestones for this revolution, as set out in the IEA roadmap, include: no new unabated coal plants approved for development after 2021; global phase-out of subcritical coal power plants by 2030; and achieving 100% clean electricity in advanced economies by 2035 and globally by 2040. 

To achieve the above-noted milestones requires, according to IEA, a massive step-up of global wind and solar additions to over 700 GW per year over the next 30 years, from its current levels (about 250 GW in 2020). Other low-carbon generating technologies, especially hydro, nuclear, and bioenergy, are also expected to experience a rapid expansion, to meet about 12% of the global electricity needs by 2050. Besides, some energy technologies (e.g., hydrogen, and carbon capture, utilisation and storage, CCUS), that are currently in the demonstration or prototype stage, also need to expand rapidly, especially after 2030, to decarbonise the global electricity industry.

 

Key insights for China

Reliance on nascent technology leaves little scope for slow progress. The IEA’s net-zero energy roadmap is reliant on nascent technologies to varying degrees (most notably, hydrogen and CCUS), similar to scenarios analysed by IPCC. This highlights the urgency of accelerating the current pace of energy decarbonisation in all countries, including China, given the substantial uncertainties and discord that surround those nascent energy technologies.  

Energy decarbonisation requires immediate action, tailored to each countries’ context. The IEA points out that its roadmap ‘provides a global view, but countries do not start in the same place or finish at the same time’. This reflects the need for countries to set out their own paths to net-zero energy emissions by considering their specific circumstances, such as energy endowment, developmental stage, income level, and so on. This, however, should not be considered as a call to delay climate actions. Instead, it is a call for all major countries (including China) to take immediate actions to decarbonise their energy sectors so that the rest of the world can have more flexibility in their own decarbonisation processes. This will not only help China achieve its national aspiration of developing an ‘ecological civilisation’, but also demonstrate to the world that China is a responsible great power. 

Technological innovation is critical for delivering mid-century net zero goals. The IEA report shows that by 2050, almost half of the global emissions reductions will depend on new technologies currently in the demonstration or prototype stage, including hydrogen and CCUS. This highlights the criticality of technological innovation in attaining a net-zero energy system. The ‘spectacular’ cost reduction (82%) for solar PV over the past 10 years or so shows us that it is completely feasible to achieve rapid technological development by leaps and bounds, but this really depends on whether immediate actions can be undertaken to set innovation in action.

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