23rd September 2020
Many governments have ambitious plans for reducing emissions from the energy sector. Some governments have even put net-zero ambitions into law or proposed legislation, while others are discussing their own net-zero strategies. Many companies have also announced carbon-neutral targets, with some even having plans to be carbon negative. The success of renewable power technologies, such as wind and solar, gives governments and businesses some cause for optimism.
However, IEA’s epic new 400 page report describes in detail how reaching these ambitious net zero targets will require devoting far more attention to the transport, industrial and buildings sectors as a whole; which today account for more than 55% of CO2 emissions from the energy system. The reports main findings are outlined below.
“To avoid the worst consequences of climate change, the global energy system must quickly reduce its emissions”
The rapid growth and adoption of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar has shown the potential for these technologies to help us bring down emissions globally. However, as the report states, if we are to see the impact that will be required to reach our new zero targets, these technologies need to be developed and rolled out at a huge scale. All of this will also need to be done in conjunction with the introduction of other clean energy solutions which are currently at an earlier stage of development, such as hydrogen and carbon capture.
“Spreading the use of electricity into more parts of the economy is the single largest contributor to reaching net-zero emissions”
For us to reach our net zero goals, reducing our reliance on coal, gas and oil has to be a priority, but the electrification of our future economy presents its own challenges when it comes to the increase in power generation capacity that will be required. In the IEA’s Sustainable Development Scenario – a roadmap for meeting international climate and energy goals – the world’s final energy demand will be more than double what it is today by 2070. The growth in demand will be down to using electricity to power cars, buses and trucks; to producing recycled metals and providing heat for industry; and to supplying the energy needed for heating, cooking and other appliances in buildings.
That additional energy requirement will have to come from clean energy sources, which will require a huge transformation in the power sector across the globe.
However, this alone will only get the world one-third of the way to net zero, so more attention needs to be placed on other sectors and technologies.
“Electricity cannot decarbonise entire economies alone”
Not all industries can adapt to the direct use of electricity, such as in the production of steel or fuelling large ships for transport, therefore a large amount of additional generation will be needed for low-carbon hydrogen. As the report states, the global capacity of electrolysers, which produce hydrogen from water and electricity, may expand to 3 300 GW by 2070, from 0.2 GW today. In order to produce the low-carbon hydrogen required to reach net-zero emissions, these electrolysers would consume twice the amount of electricity the People’s Republic of China generates today.
Another area where we need to see major development and roll out is with carbon capture and bioenergy. Capturing CO2 emissions in order to use them sustainably or store them (known as CCUS) is a crucial technology for reaching net-zero emissions and it’s likely that by 2070, as laid out by the Sustainable Development Scenario, electricity, hydrogen, synthetic fuels and bioenergy will end up accounting for a similar share of demand that coal, oil and natural gas do today.
“Long-distance transport and heavy industry are home to the hardest emissions to reduce”
Energy efficiency, material efficiency and avoided transportation demand (e.g. substituting personal car travel with walking or cycling) all play an important role in reducing emissions in long-distance transport and heavy industries. But when planning for the future, the majority of the emission reduction from this sector will come from technologies that are still at the demonstration and prototype stage. For heavy industries such as cement, steel and chemical production, hydrogen, synthetic and biofuels will likely be the driving force for a reduction in emissions but again these technologies are still in early development stage. Luckily the engineering skills and knowledge in these sectors provide an excellent starting point for commercialising technologies that will be required for tackling our emissions for years to come.
As governments across the world start to develop more focussed plans on how to achieve their net zero targets, it’s clear that there will be a growing requirement for organisations to invest in the latest technologies, as and when they become available. Choosing the best methods for your business will be important, which is why developing a clear and actionable sustainability plan that responds to the changing technological landscape will be vital moving forward.
Read the full report: The Energy Technology Perspectives 2020