An updated roadmap to combat climate change throws cold water on the idea that unproven technologies can play an important role in avoiding disasters.
Today, the International Energy Agency (IEA) updated its road map for the energy sector to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Redoubles the need to rapidly shift to renewable energy while minimizing the use of technologies that are still largely in the demonstration and prototype phase today in day, including carbon capture and hydrogen fuels. .
The IEA, initially created to safeguard the world’s oil supply, debuted its milestone road map in 2021 with a gloomy forecast for fossil fuels: asking that no more investment be made in new oil, gas and coal projects. It set out the steps that every country on Earth must take to meet the goals of the Paris climate agreement, which seeks to limit global warming to approximately 1.5 degrees Celsius while achieving net-zero emissions. But the planet is still warming, reaching 1.2 degrees Celsius, leading to more extreme weather and climate disasters and pushing the IEA to revise its global roadmap to address new realities.
“I think some realism has come in”
The biggest difference in this new report is that emerging technologies that have received a lot of publicity as high-tech solutions to climate change now play a significantly smaller role than expected in 2021. Those technologies, which include hydrogen fuel cells for vehicles and heavy devices. that filter CO2 emissions from smokestacks or ambient air, now account for 35 percent of emissions reductions instead of nearly 50 percent.
Because? They simply have not lived up to expectations, the report says quite clearly.
“I think this has created some realism, and I wonder how that realism in this report will cut across those industries,” says Dave Jones, global insights leader at energy think tank Ember.
Today, “hydrogen production is more of a climate problem than a climate solution,” the report says. Hydrogen as a fuel is nothing new, but most of it is still produced with gas. Some countries, including the United States, are investing in ways to make hydrogen more sustainable by using renewable energy or fossil fuels combined with carbon capture. If it takes off, it could create cleaner fuel for planes, ships or trucks.
But building infrastructure to transport hydrogen is proving to be a bigger barrier than anticipated, Jones says. On the other hand, electric charging infrastructure, although still limited, is growing much more rapidly. The IEA’s updated roadmap reduces the share of heavy fuel cell electric vehicles on the road in 2050 by up to 40 percent compared to its initial forecast for 2021.
Similarly, the roadmap reduces the role of carbon capture technologies by around 40 percent in reducing emissions from power generation. “Until now, the story (of carbon capture) has largely been a story of unmet expectations,” the new IEA report says. The US Department of Energy (DOE) has wasted hundreds of millions of dollars on failed carbon capture projects primarily due to “factors that affect their economic viability,” according to a 2021 study. report by the Government Accountability Office.
“Removing carbon from the atmosphere is very expensive. We must do everything we can to stop putting it there,” IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol said in a press release. If pollution doesn’t decline fast enough and the planet warms more than 1.5 degrees, countries can try to use carbon capture technologies that are “expensive and unproven at scale” to try to reverse some of that warming, says the Press release. But relying on those technologies would carry greater climate risks.
Global renewable energy capacity must triple by 2030 to stop generating planet-warming pollution in the first place, the report says. Clean energy spending would have to more than double, rising from $1.8 trillion this year to $4.5 trillion by the beginning of the next decade. Energy efficiency also needs to double in the same time frame, and the world’s richest countries must reach net-zero emissions years ahead of the 2050 global goal.
The timing of this updated roadmap is important. It follows the United Nations’ first global report on how well countries are tackling climate change. In short, they have fallen behind, as emissions continue to rise despite the need to limit warming to 1.5 degrees.
The UN held a climate summit in New York last week to pressure countries to increase their clean energy commitments, but the heads of state of the countries with the largest carbon footprints (China and the United States) did not participate. They will get another chance during a broader U.N. climate conference that begins in Dubai in November.