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The Energy Transition Tunnel Is Narrowing, But There’s Light, Too

The Energy Transition Tunnel Is Narrowing, But There’s Light, Too

Global fossil fuel emissions are expected to peak in the middle of the 2020s and fall back to near 2015 levels by 2030, according to a new report from the International Energy Agency. The rapid progress in renewable energy technology and construction have kept open a path to limiting global, though the agency said faster progress is needed to meet the goals of the Paris Climate Accord.

The bad news, according to the report, Net Zero Roadmap: A Global Pathway to Keep the 1.5 °C Goal in Reach, is that in 2022, the energy sector set a record at 37 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions. But it reiterated that there’s reason for optimism about rapid deployment of clean energy technologies. Demand for coal, oil, and gas are likely to begin to decline within the decade, even without more climate regulations because renewable energy is less expensive.

The IEA projects that by 2030, global carbon emissions could be 35% lower than in 2022, which requires tripling renewable energy generation capacity. Yet, investments in clean energy are skyrocketing, the report said. Influenced by the pandemic and geopolitical events like Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the global energy landscape is experiencing a massive tilt toward clean energy technologies. Only three years ago, renewables investments totaled just $363 billion globally, but a massive $1.8 trillion will flow into the sector in 2023.

One of the central tenets of the IEA’s updated Net Zero Emissions (NZE) Scenario is the continuation of a massive surge in renewable energy capacity. Maintaining the necessary pace to avoid 1.5 °C of warming requires nearly $4.5 trillion in additional renewable energy investments annually by the early 2030s, about two-and-a-half times all energy investments in 2023.

Fossil fuels advocates often point to the large investments needed to complete the pivot to an electrified economy, saying they are too expensive. However, decades of fossil fuel investing has produced vast returns.

“A new factory is an investment, not a cost,” said Gil Friend, CEO of Natural Logic. “A company makes its investment decisions based on its capital capacity and its anticipated ROI. Partisans who trumpet costs alone pulling the wool over people’s eyes.”

Progress Depends On Developed Nations Taking The Lead

By 2035, emissions from developed nations must plummet by 80% and those from emerging and developing economies by 60%, compared to 2022. Although advanced economies and China are on track to meet most of their renewable goals, other countries need more robust policies and international support. Unfortunately, the IEA wrote, the many governments are not keeping up with their stated net-zero goals – more funding from the Global North, which is responsible for the lion’s share of historical emissions, would help.

But even if met, these pledges would fall short of the global target of net zero emissions by 2050, the report warned.

The pivot to cleaner energy sources could slash fossil fuel demand by more than 25% in this decade alone. National policies like transitioning from coal-fired plants can help accelerate the shift. Reducing energy sector methane emissions by 75% by 2030 is the most cost-effective way to limit near-term global warming, the report said. Slashing methane emissions from oil and gas operations by 75% would cost about $75 billion by 2030, only about 2% of the oil and gas industry’s 2022 profits.

Despite their initial costs, clean energy tech transitions will eventually lead to significant household energy savings, the IEA said, especially in emerging and developing economies. There’s an urgent need for policies supporting these transitions, with a particular focus on low-income households.

Mining And Extraction Will Continue, But Far Less Than Today

The future also hinges on securing a steady supply of critical minerals like nickel and lithium. While current projects might fall short, extraction, recycling, and design innovations can close this gap.

“Between 2010 and 2022, lithium mining output rose by a factor of five, and nickel and cobalt by a factor of two,” the report said, pointing to industries that are rapidly evolving to supply critical minerals and other raw materials for renewables. Solar and batteries investments announced over the past two years could meet demand in 2030 if they achieve the levels of production expected.

“While the demand for critical minerals increases significantly in the NZE Scenario, clean energy transitions require significantly fewer extractive resources in aggregate than today’s energy system,” the report said, calling out concerns about the amount of mining needed to supply the electrification transition. “[I]ncreased demand for critical minerals is accompanied by a massive decrease in extraction of fossil fuels. The net result is that for every unit of energy delivered in 2050, the energy system consumes two-thirds less in materials (fossil fuels and critical minerals combined) than it does today.”

The current momentum is primarily in compact clean energy technologies like solar and batteries. However, reaching net-zero emissions also demands more extensive infrastructure, diverse low-emission fuels, carbon capture technologies, and lots of land set aside for renewable solar and wind generation. There’s also a pressing need to ramp up energy grid infrastructure.

The IEA also called for concerted efforts to increase recycling rates, especially for battery and other electrification minerals, to maintain the necessary supply of batteries, EVs, and electric grid storage capacity.

The report was hopeful. While the demand for critical minerals rises in its NZE Scenario, the overall extraction requirements of the energy system will decline due to a massive drop in fossil fuel extraction. Once these materials are extracted, they can be reused many times over generations of batteries and other green products. We can do more than hope, we can help by recycling.

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