Rapid innovation in clean energy technology needed to meet 2050 carbon goals

Without a major acceleration in clean energy innovation, it is unlikely that the world will meet its 2050 net zero carbon climate goals the International Energy Agency (IEA) has said.

In a new report, the IEA outlines how the world can quickly shift towards clean energy infrastructure while analysing the “market readiness” of more than 400 clean energy technologies.

With the cost of technologies like solar and offshore wind plummeting in recent years, fossil fuel plants are becoming increasingly uneconomical in comparison.

However, the need for baseload electricity supply to pick up the slack when atmospheric conditions aren’t suitable for renewable generation - in addition to significant lobbying from the fossil fuel sector - has meant that many countries are failing to transition quickly enough to meet carbon targets.

“There is a stark disconnect today between the climate goals that governments and companies have set for themselves and the current state of affordable and reliable energy technologies that can realise these goals,” said Dr Fatih Birol, the IEA's executive director.

“This report examines how quickly energy innovation would have to move forward to bring all parts of the economy - including challenging sectors like long-distance transport and heavy industry - to net-zero emissions by 2050 without drastic changes to how we go about our lives.

“This analysis shows that getting there would hinge on technologies that have not yet even reached the market today. The message is very clear: in the absence of much faster clean energy innovation, achieving net-zero goals in 2050 will be all but impossible.”

A significant part of the challenge comes from major sectors where there are currently few technologies available for reducing emissions to zero, such as shipping, trucking, aviation and heavy industries such as steel, cement and chemicals.

The IEA said that decarbonisation in these sectors will rely on the development of new technologies, a potentially long-winded process that needs to be undertaken now in the hope that solutions can be found within the required timeline.

If certain key technologies can be developed by 2030, they could be implemented during the next round of plant refurbishments in heavy industry, saving a potential 60 gigatons of carbon emissions, the report found.

It added that the four most critical clean technologies needing innovation are battery technologies, carbon capture and storage, bioenergy and low-carbon hydrogen, which are currently mostly in the development phase and/or costly.

Global CO2 emissions are expected to be 8 per cent lower this year than in 2019 - their lowest level since 2010 - as energy demand has slumped due to the coronavirus pandemic, but they are likely to rebound as economies recover unless action is taken.

The IEA previously detailed a $3tn green recovery plan designed to generate millions of jobs through measures such as mass retrofitting of buildings to improve energy efficiency and pouring money into renewable energy generation.

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