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This decade is pivotal to a clean energy future. Breakthrough Report from IEA

image credit: IEA Report Major Milestones in the pathway to Net Zero
Paul Hobcraft's picture
Innovation & Energy Knowledge Provider Agility Innovation

I work as a transition advocate for innovation, ecosystems, within IIoT, and the energy system as my points of focus. I relate content to context to give greater knowledge and build the...

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  • May 19, 2021

The International Energy Agency (IEA) released its most comprehensive report “Net Zero by 2050: a roadmap for the Global Energy Sector” on 18th May 2021.

The roadmap outlined underscores how pivotal this current decade is to ever reach net-zero by mid-century. In my opinion, it is the next three to five years that will determine this. If we fail to drive down emissions into a really sharp decline through a global political will we are in serious trouble.

It is only through strong and credible energy policies and significant investment into clean energy solutions we will get onto any pathway. If we fail to recognize the overwhelming needs to change we can say goodbye to 2050 as a net-zero target, then that will have colossal economic and climatic consequences.

The report by IEA lays out a viable pathway to building a global energy sector with net-zero emissions in 2050, but as they state this is a (really) narrow window and requires an unprecedented transformation in how energy is produced, transmitted and consumed.

They suggest “to have a fighting chance” to limit the rise in global temperature to 1.5 °C,   requires nothing short of a total transformation of the energy systems.

Milestones that are defined, clear and time-related.

The report sets out clear milestones- more than 400 in total, spanning all sectors and technologies. for what is needed to happen and, more importantly, when, to transform the global economy from one dominated by fossil fuels into one powered predominantly by renewable energy, such as solar and wind.

This “viable” pathway requires vast amounts of investments, innovation, skilful policy design and implementation, technology deployment, infrastructure building, international cooperation at a scale not imagined or seen to date and major efforts across multiple areas associated with such an energy transformation.

The roadmap outlines over 200 plus pages within the report is global in scope.

It does not attempt to tackle country or regional designs, those each have specific circumstances, history and their specific stages of designing a roadmap that works for them to get towards this 2050 net-zero goal.

There are no one-size-fits-all, as each country is at different economic development in its challenges, energy dependencies and ability to undertake such a radical transition.

Where this report goes beyond what we have had in the past is its specific milestones (major ones shown here) that are dramatic and staggering in how necessary these are to offer a “viable” roadmap.

There are staggering changes ahead of us.

There is no scope for new fossil fuel developments anywhere in the world to get on the right and only trajectory of achieving the net-zero goal by 2050.  Again, no scope!! Just think, no scope and what that means in Asia, in China, India, Japan, Australia or in the USA, rich in coal, oil and gas.

The world has known for many years  (in the 1980s, at least) the need to address climate change. The ability to turn observation and scientific evidence into getting the global community deadly serious about eliminating carbon emissions is only just getting serious. The 2015 Paris Agreement offered the foundations of global consensus and still, we are not on that track firmly enough.

Can we in less than 5 to 10 years turn this into that decisive moment?

I have serious doubts, I mean serious ones, but we must try. The IEA modelling made some sweeping assumptions, courtesy of IEEFA:

The new IEA modelling assumes:

  • Clean energy investment trebles to US$5 trillion p.a. by 2030, accelerating global economic growth in the process;
  • Energy efficiency needs to deliver a 4% annual improvement globally by 2030;
  • Global installs of variable renewable energy (VRE) need to quadruple from 2020 levels to 1,020 gigawatts (GW) annually through to 2030;
  • EVs need to rise from 5% of global new car sales to 60% by 2030, with new internal combustion engine (ICE) car sales ceasing entirely by 2035;
  • Global battery production for EVs needs to increase fortyfold to 6,600GWh annually;
  • Global investment in grid transmission and distribution needs to treble to US$820bn annually; and
  • Methane emissions globally from fossil fuel supplies must reduce by 75% by 2030, assisted by independent satellite tracking and incumbent players’ belated efforts as transparency increases.

Critically, the IEA has stopped buying the fossil fuel industry smokescreens of offsets and unfeasible technologies like carbon capture and storage (CCS) when talking about the global energy sector’s efforts over this coming decade, suggesting it will play only an immaterial role.

This acknowledgement of only factoring in commercially proven and likely technologies should clear up one of the major issues of placing investments behind unproven technology to deliver this decade.

Future technology, beyond 2030 becomes a different horizon.

Yet to get to that we need immense momentum in the next ten or so years that drive down emissions and stop fossil fuel investments.

Beyond 2030 new technology needs to be coming on stream for breakthroughs in what we have today in the areas of advanced batteries, hydrogen, bioenergy, CCUS air capture and storage and the IEA suggest RD&D investments need to treble to US$90bn annually to get these solutions future-ready.

The future of 2050 in this reports prediction

Two-thirds of total energy globally will come from renewable energy by 2050- that is wind, solar, hydro, bioenergy and geothermal. The one that needs really addressing in this decade is Nuclear as a viable option but that has “perception” and acceptance by not just climate activists but the populous at large. and that is not a very easy one but its solution might be vital to have within the new energy mix.

In the foreword to this report, Dr Fatih Birol, the Executive Director of the IEA he states:

The world has a huge challenge ahead of it to move net-zero by 2050 from a narrow possibility to practical reality. Global carbon dioxide emissions are already rebounding sharply as economies recover from last year’s pandemic‐induced shock. It is past time for governments to act, and act decisively to accelerate the clean energy transformation

The near-tern determines any hope for achieving the net-zero goals by 2050.

It is this near-term to even get onto a net-zero pathway it requires the immediate and massive deployment of all available clean and efficient energy technologies, combined with a major global push to accelerate innovation for the next round of technology breakthroughs.

Am I optimistic, does this roadmap give me encouragement?

This report on a roadmap towards Net-Zero by 2050, is a must-read by anyone who wants to begin to understand their future.

Does the scenario spelt out in clear requirements what is needed, yes but…….

The “but” is if we can’t achieve a significant new set of global agreements, pledges and commitments at the November COP26 meeting in Glasgow, UK then what is deemed as a narrow window will close and 2050 will be a nightmare of climatic consequences because of the lack of decisive action and agreements needed now.

Decisions need to be made as to the impact are “collective ones”. The stance is these have to be fair, equitable and inclusive and here is where the politics kick in. and our political leadership needs to step up.

As the IEEFA states in their view of this report “IEA’s roadmap shows the global energy landscape is set to change profoundly, and at an unprecedented pace, as world leaders – governments, GSFI and corporates move to align with net-zero emissions by 2050 and a 1.5°C limit.

We live in exciting times. Get ready for exponential change in the global energy landscape!”

We need to move beyond hope and talk, otherwise, we lose the 2050 goal and then what happens?

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on May 19, 2021

Can we in less than 5 to 10 years turn this into that decisive moment?

I have serious doubts, I mean serious ones, but we must try.

Your answer here is my evergreen answer to these types of questions as well. What do you think is the single most important deciding factor in terms of whether policy makers go down the pathway of being serious and aggressive enough or not? 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on May 19, 2021

From the report:

"By 2050, almost 90% of electricity generation comes from renewable sources, with wind and solar PV together accounting for nearly 70%. Most of the remainder comes from nuclear."

Nowhere in the world - not one country, one state, or even one city - do wind and solar PV account for "nearly 70%" of current electricity needs, much less those that will be sufficient to charge electric transportation in 2050.

If the wind doesn't blow significantly harder, and the sun doesn't shine consistently brighter (relatively safe assumptions), IEA has it backwards: almost 70% of electricity generation will need to come from nuclear by 2050. Likely, it will be sufficiently more when policymakers discover the 4 billion residents in developing countries want reliable electricity, too. That's another relatively safe assumption.

The experts say "Nuclear paves the only viable path forward on climate change." Maybe we should be listening to the experts?

Paul Hobcraft's picture
Paul Hobcraft on May 20, 2021

Bob, totally agree the need for Nuclear is totally necessary but "sentiment and opinion" needs to change  of course having no stability of energy might trigger that. 

The levels of bioenergy are fantasy thinking and hydrogen  seems to have been downplayed  

As for CCUS that is yet again based on hope not proven solutions. 

Their "demands" to stop so many of today's solutions really leaves the reader puzzled, as alternative solutions, market demand and acceptance are all yet to be established 

The report was projected to meet a date, to fit the needs.

In my opinion we will blow well past 2050 and into 2070 unless some really amazing agreements come out of COP 26 in November in Glasgow.

Waking up to Nuclear comes when France re-invests in the next ten years, significantly challenging  public sentiment. 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on May 21, 2021

"Waking up to Nuclear comes when France re-invests in the next ten years, significantly challenging  public sentiment."

One can only hope, Paul. Macron has exhibited the bold leadership that will be necessary in every developed country for physics to triumph over irrational fear.

Paul Hobcraft's picture
Paul Hobcraft on May 19, 2021

Ahh Matt, asking the US $100 trillion question. Is the global health of the planet worth this investment to each of us ? 8 billion people, 30 years, it seems a small price to pay to avoid the alternative 

Jim Stack's picture
Jim Stack on May 21, 2021

Nice news Paul, can you imagine how far ahead we would be on clean energy and efficiency if we put all the subsidies into clean energy?  It's hard to believe we still give money to the coal industry , natural gas and nuclear. 

   How do you see us making big progress on this important issue? 


Paul Hobcraft's picture
Paul Hobcraft on May 23, 2021

This use of subsidies, direct and indirect are a really tough one to resolve. A fossil fuel industry established and embedded in lobbyists, funding and political influence for 100 years against a young alternative industry of renewables.

Take the tobacco industry. It has taken 60 plus years to get to where we are and why?

When you have risk, not just stranded asset risk, but investors money at risk, when you have potential litigation risk of doing harm to the environment, local and potentially in the wider context everything is measured in "cycle time" and that is what this is facing. Assets that are "deemed" to have commercial value; coal, oil and gas in the ground, the supply chain built up around this in the movement of the raw material, the industry and society dependence to "unwind" all the legal and vested support is on a massive scale. I wish it was so simple to move "just" subsides but what are they actually supporting and what are they given against that has value? What is a subsidy if it supports a community, it stops the alternative of possible unemployment or whole parts of a district from collapsing and becoming abandoned?

So are we facing another 6o year shift- can we afford this as a planet that MUST change. What will shift the "sentiment" and shift the dynamics

One hope for me, is being able to map, through satellite imagery, the emissions of Methane gas, the hot spots to take capture to a different commercial or cost of operating level. The new subsidies should be on clean air or green product, they should be introduced in parellel to existing ones. Forging a greater "Clean Air and Green Product" act can offset, drive change, shift the current arguments perhaps?

Just my thoughts back Jim

Paul Hobcraft's picture
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