With the same precautionary reasoning in mind, the WEO-2019 also explores what it would take to achieve a 50% probability of stabilisation at 1.5 °C without net negative emissions.
A 1.5 °C scenario that does not rely on negative emissions technologies implies achieving global net-zero emissions around 2050. This in turn means a reduction in emissions of around 1.3 billion tonnes CO2 every year from 2018 onwards. That amount is roughly equivalent to the emissions from 15% of the world’s coal fleet or from 40% of today’s global passenger car fleet.
The year by which different economies would need to hit net-zero in such a scenario would vary, but the implication for advanced economies is that they would need to reach this point in the 2040s. The difference, compared with the Sustainable Development Scenario, would be much starker for many developing economies, which would all need to be at net-zero by 2050.
A zero-carbon power system would need to become a reality at least a few years before the entire economy reaches net-zero. This implies moving to a zero-emissions electricity system in the 2030s for advanced economies and around 2040 for developing economies.
Discussing target dates in this context is useful, but the really tough part is working out how to get there. That requires credible plans to actually reduce emissions quickly across the entire economy, pathways that work not just from the perspectives of technical feasibility or cost-efficiency (although these are important) but also take into account the need for social acceptance and buy-in.
The technical solutions in the power sector, at least, are well known, although the scale and speed at which clean energy technologies would need to be deployed – and existing facilities either repurposed, retrofitted with CCUS, or retired – is breath-taking. But any economy-wide net-zero target also needs to find answers quickly for sectors that are much harder to decarbonise, notably buildings, heavy industries like cement and steel, aviation and freight transport. Achieving such an outcome, without compromising the affordability or reliability of energy, represents an extraordinary challenge.
The energy sector is rightly at the heart of the climate debate, but it cannot deliver such a transformation on its own. Change on a massive scale would be necessary across a very broad front. As the IPCC 1.5 °C report says, this type of scenario would require rapid and far-reaching transitions not only in energy, but also in land, urban infrastructure – including transport and buildings – and industrial systems.
In its 2019 edition, the World Energy Outlook once again puts the spotlight on the huge disparity between the kind of transformation that is required and the pathway that the world is on, according to our assessment of today’s policy plans and ambitions and the rising energy needs of a growing global population and economy.
As the IEA’s Executive Director, Dr Fatih Birol, commented at the WEO launch this week, the world urgently needs to put a laser-like focus on bringing down global emissions.
“This calls for a grand coalition encompassing governments, investors, companies and everyone else who is committed to tackling climate change,” Dr Birol said. “Our Sustainable Development Scenario is tailor-made to help guide the members of such a coalition in their efforts to address the massive climate challenge that faces us all.”