Deep Decarbonization in Deep Trouble

If the world is to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement and limit the rise in global mean temperature to “well below” 2°C, an energy transition of exceptional scope, depth and speed is required by 2050, according to a new report from the International Energy Agency (IEA) and the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA).  

Perspectives for the Energy Transition – Investment Needs for a Low-Carbon Energy System finds that in order to achieve internationally accepted climate goals, a deep transformation of global energy production and consumption must occur by 2050.  

How deep? 

Global carbon emissions need to peak before 2020, say IEA and IRENA.  

And then they must fall by more than 70% below today’s levels by 2050. 

And then fall to zero by 2060.

According to the UN Environment’s Emissions Gap 2016 report, the world is facing:

“…likely the last chance to keep the option of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees C in 2100 open, as all available scenarios consistent with the 1.5 degree C goal imply that global greenhouse gases peak before 2020.“

The Perspectives report contains separate analyses by IEA and IRENA. This article from CarbonBrief provides an excellent summary of the report’s key findings. Among them:

  • Nearly 95% of electricity must to be low-carbon by 2050, compared with about a third today;
  • The share of fossil fuels for energy demand must fall by half between 2014 and 2050;
  • Low-carbon sources—which the IEA defines as including nuclear and fossil fuels with carbon capture and storage (CCS)—would have to more than triple to 70% of worldwide energy demand in 2050;
  • Renewable energy would have to be the largest source of electricity by 2030, with its share climbing to 65% in 2050—four-times higher than it is today;
  • 7 out of every 10 new cars would have to be electric by 2050, compared with 1 in 100 today;
  • The entire existing building stock would have to be retrofitted by 2050;
  • The CO2 intensity of the industrial sector would have to drop by 80% below today’s levels by 2050;
  • Ambitious adoption of policy measures to drive all of this would be required, including a rapid phase out of fossil-fuel subsidies, placing a rising price on CO2 emissions, extensive electricity market reforms to integrate ever larger shares of renewables, and stringent low-carbon and energy efficiency mandates

IEA views natural gas as having an important role as a transition fuel and as a complement to variable renewable power through 2050. But to play that role, natgas—as well as remaining coal plants and industrial sources of carbon emissions—would have to be coupled with CCS.

We are a long way off from any of this. Let’s just look at the state of CCS as a proxy measure.

In 2016, IEA’s 20 Years of Carbon Capture and Storage observed that “deployment of CCS will not be optional in implementing the Paris Agreement.” Indeed, international emissions scenarios recommend more than 4,000 CCS-equipped facilities to be operating by 2030. But according to the Global CCS Institute, there are just 16 CCS projects currently operating around the world, with only another 22 planned.

Thirty-eight is a long way from four thousand. And the world is a long way from deep decarbonization.

And time for us to preserve a habitable climate is rapidly running out.

John Quigley

Senior Fellow, Kleinman Center
John Quigley is a senior fellow at the Kleinman Center and previously served on the Center’s Advisory Board. He served as Secretary of the PA Department of Environmental Protection and of the PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.