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To Be Carbon-Neutral By 2050, No New Oil And Coal Projects, Report Says

A new International Energy Agency report on climate change calls for halting approval of all new coal power plants this year. Here, wind turbines are seen on a dike near Urk, Netherlands, in January.
Peter Dejong
A new International Energy Agency report on climate change calls for halting approval of all new coal power plants this year. Here, wind turbines are seen on a dike near Urk, Netherlands, in January.

Updated May 18, 2021 at 1:07 PM ET

Enough rhetoric, it's time to act: that's the gist of a new report from the International Energy Agency, which says the world must bring about "a total transformation" of its energy systems if it hopes to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 and minimize the worst effects of climate change.

The agency is calling for a string of bold actions and aggressive deadlines in the report, which is a roadmap to zero out carbon emissions, either by reducing them or removing them through technology such as carbon capture.

"We are in a critical year at the start of a critical decade for these efforts," the IEA's executive director, Fatih Birol, said as he introduced the report.

By the end of 2021, governments should refuse to approve any new oil and gas fields, as well as any new unabated coal power plants, the IEA report says. By the end of 2025, it says, new sales of fossil fuel boilers should be phased out.

Those are just a few of the more than 400 milestones in the IEA's Net Zero by 2050 report that was released Tuesday, laying out a roadmap the world should follow to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

In the IEA's vision, clean energy would dominate the world's electrical systems by 2050, led by solar and wind power. The agency calls for a historic level of new investments to meet that goal, reaching $4 trillion in 2030. And the amount of new solar and wind electrical capacity added each year — which reached a record in 2020 — must quadruple.

Birol noted that even as the number of countries pledging to aim for net-zero emissions has grown, so have global greenhouse gas emissions.

"This gap between rhetoric and action needs to close if we are to have a fighting chance of reaching net zero by 2050 and limiting the rise in global temperatures to 1.5 °C," Birol said.

The plan would require a massive shift in the U.S., which relies on natural gas-fired plants for the largest share of its power — 43% of national capacity. Coal-fired power plants account for about 20% of electricity generating capacity, according to the federal Energy Information Administration, citing figures from the end of 2020.

Realistically, shifting the world onto a track to be net-zero by 2050 would require a series of feats in the political, business, technological and social spheres. It is "a huge challenge" to push those goals from the realm of possibility into reality, Birol said, urging countries to accelerate their plans for clean energy.

A graphic from the International Energy Agency shows key milestones that it says the world should aim for to reach an internationally recognized goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
/ International Energy Agency
International Energy Agency
A graphic from the International Energy Agency shows key milestones that it says the world should aim for to reach an internationally recognized goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

In response to the report, the American Petroleum Institute, the country's largest oil and gas lobby, said it supports a "lower carbon future." It said that oil and gas will be part of that future, as some of the technology to reaching net-zero carbon emissions doesn't exist yet.

Stephen Comstock, API's vice president of corporate policy, stressed that "it is essential to implement effective and achievable measures that drive further emissions reductions while at the same time, ensuring adequate affordable and reliable energy to meet growing global needs."

While many of the recommendations in the report would need major changes in infrastructure and industry, regular people also play an important role.

"The changes will affect multiple aspects of people's lives — from transport, heating and cooking to urban planning and jobs," the report states. "We estimate that around 55% of the cumulative emissions reductions in the pathway are linked to consumer choices such as purchasing an EV, retrofitting a house with energy-efficient technologies or installing a heat pump."

People in advanced, carbon-hungry economies could also bring around 4% of the overall emissions reductions in the roadmap if they change some of their habits, such as walking, cycling or taking public transit rather than driving, according to the report.

Birol also called for a transition from fossil fuel to cleaner energy to be inclusive, acknowledging the huge numbers of people who still live their daily lives without reliable energy sources.

"It is a moral imperative," he said, "to bring electricity to the hundreds of millions of people who currently are deprived of access to it, the majority of them in Africa."

And the IEA chief urged governments to look out for people who currently work in the fossil fuel industry, providing training or new opportunities if they're sidelined by a shift in energy sources. The goal, Birol said, should be to make those workers "feel part of the transition and not simply subject to it."

To create models of how the world might evolve toward a net-zero future, the study's authors used data from a number of key sources, such as energy supply and demand, electricity capacity, carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel combustion and other sources, as well as economic indicators.

The ambitious global energy roadmap comes as experts say the effects of climate change are already making it more difficult to quantify both the full scale of the problem and the potential effects of emissions reductions.

On the same day the IEA released its report, for instance, a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences says current climate projections have failed to take the cascading effects of Arctic warming fully into account. In addition to record heat waves in Siberia and the loss of Arctic ice, the study says, the trend boosts carbon emissions in a range of ways, from speeding up permafrost thaw to triggering extreme wildfires.

The IEA report also highlights key "innovation opportunities," calling for progress in improving batteries and in producing hydrogen, as well as methods to capture and store carbon dioxide emissions. And it's imperative, the report states, that those innovations are deployed in the real world, rather than remaining in the research and development phase.

The report calls for more than tripling the amount of public funds that are devoted to demonstration projects to show how new innovations in areas such as electrification, hydrogen and bioenergy can be deployed. Right now, the IEA says, around $25 billion is budgeted for such efforts in this decade, worldwide. The group calls for mobilizing an additional $90 billion, "as soon as possible."

"Developing and deploying these technologies would create major new industries, as well as commercial and employment opportunities," the report states.

The 224-page report was released roughly six months before countries will meet to discuss their approach to climate change at COP26 – the 2021 U.N. Climate Change Conference — which will be held in Glasgow in November. When the U.S. and other countries meet in the fall, they'll attempt to build on the foundations of the Paris Agreement, which they created at the 2015 convention.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.

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