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Is this the right path to net zero?

This newsletter from the New Scientist popped into my inbox whilst I was wrapping up the May newsletter. I found I wanted to share it in full - no way I could pinpoint a few highlights and include it in our own newsletter! Adam Vaughan, lead reporter with New Scientist will be producing this monthly, then weekly, then daily as we reach COP26. You can sign up for New Scientist subscriptions here,

Last week, COP26 president Alok Sharma confirmed the conference will go ahead in-person in Glasgow, UK, rather than as a largely virtual affair. I do understand Greta Thunberg and others’ reservations about whether attendees from around the world will have had access to a coronavirus vaccine by then, but I think it is the right approach. Judging from past COPs, an in-person meeting is good news for compromises and breakthroughs in often-fraught negotiations. The main riff of Sharma’s speech was that COP26 is our last hope of keeping the Paris climate deal’s 1.5°C target alive. He also had strong words on the summit being the moment the world consigns coal use to history, gets serious about deforestation and boosts clean transport. You may have noticed those priorities are all politically pain-free for the UK: it has practically phased out coal already, isn’t a logging hotspot and has already committed to banning new petrol and diesel car sales by 2030. Nonetheless, it was a decent speech. An even more important moment came this week. The International Energy Agency, the energy watchdog created in the wake of the 1970s oil crises, released a report that said meeting the 1.5°C target would mean no new oil and gas wells or coal mines from this year onwards. To an extent, the IEA’s net-zero report is nothing new. We have known for years we have to keep most fossil fuels in the ground to avoid frying ourselves and busting climate targets. Yet this report deserves superlatives in the watershed, seminal and landmark vein, because of the huge weight the IEA’s views carry within boardrooms, markets and governments. Campaigners are already using it to lobby for more ambitious policies, and I predict progressive business and political leaders will wield it in the run-up to COP26. So how does the IEA think the world could get to net zero by 2050? Below are some charts that unpack how it might be done, what they tell us and what they mean for COP26.

The world needs to end unabated coal power by 2030 to reach net zero by 2050, the IEA says. But Germany, where this coal plant is based, is planning a 2038 phase-out. Photo: John Macdougall/AFP via Getty Images

Key milestones in the pathway to net zero come a lot sooner than you think. The boldest are “no new oil and gas fields approved for development” and “no new coal mines” in 2021, which is a real fillip for campaigners calling for a fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty. Clearly, this isn’t happening in reality – even the UK is mulling whether to allow a new coal mine , and BP and Shell’s plans to be greener still include new oil and gas sites. But the timeline will help investors put pressure on such firms. The IEA lists timelines for 400 milestones for the world, so you can see where countries are ahead or behind. The IEA sees a ban on cars with internal combustion engines by 2035, while the UK has picked 2030. Unabated coal should be phased out by 2030, the IEA says, yet Germany is still planning to burn it for power until 2038. The milestones graphic is too big to include here, so view it here instead.

Your regular reminder that the electrification of everything and the expansion of renewables are route A to net zero. Bill Gates highlighted this in his recent book, and the IEA rightly puts it front and centre here too. As the graph above shows, renewables will need to do the heavy lifting, growing even faster than in recent years. By 2050, says the IEA, around 90 per cent of global electricity supply will need to be low carbon, about 70 per cent from solar and wind power, with the rest mostly from nuclear. Yet new nuclear capacity has been stumbling in the real world, with just two reactors starting construction in 2019, and five old ones shutting. China is a bright spot for new nuclear, but progress is slow elsewhere. Still, the UK government will be happy with the IEA view: it’s trying to work out how to support a second new nuclear plant. It’s worth noting that nuclear power has had a much lower profile than renewables at predecessors to COP26, so it will be interesting to see if the IEA view shifts that.

Speaking of electrification, the IEA sees almost 2 billion electric cars on roads by 2050. En route, it expects electric cars and other light-duty vehicles to reach 75 per cent of sales by 2030 in high-income countries, and about half in middle and low-income ones. Such shares might seem impossible today, but rates of growth show they are feasible - in richer countries at least. So far this year, fully electric cars have taken a 7.2 per cent share of new cars sales in the UK , up from 4 per cent last year. You can expect other countries to accelerate bans of fossil fuel cars at COP26. Sharma has asked them to do so, and established a group to help.

Governments need to come clean with citizens that net zero means changing our behaviour. The waterfall graph above looks a bit complicated, but just focus on the purple chunks. The IEA thinks behavioural changes alone could reduce energy demand by 10 per cent by 2050. Many of those changes will be in transport, especially aviation, which has very few techno-fixes on the horizon . The IEA imagines a big chunk of savings (110 million tonnes of CO2) from business flights being held at pre-pandemic 2019 levels, when they accounted for a quarter of all flights. Anyone who tells you net zero can be done with tech alone is misleading you. This isn’t a key part of COP26, but I sincerely hope leaders’ rhetoric at the summit touches on it.

CO2 removals may play a smaller role than previously thought. The IEA envisages two key approaches: bioenergy with carbon capture and storage and direct air capture and storage , removing about 1.9 billion tonnes of CO2 annually in 2050. That would help the world reach the net bit of net zero, cancelling out a rump of emissions from flying and industry. That compares to between 3.5 and 16 billion tonnes in 2050 under some earlier scenarios by the UN climate science panel, the IPCC. But such low assumptions in the IEA’s scenario rest on bold CO2 cuts now, such as that end in new oil and gas fields this year, which isn’t happening, yet. Look out for a big feature on CO2 removals in New Scientist soon. The role of trees on removing CO2 will come up at COP26, where delegates are expected to discuss how best to avoid deforestation without just pushing the deforestation to another part of the world (known as “jurisdictional REDD+” in the jargon). What does this all add up to? The UK government asked for the report from the IEA, which hasn’t previously set out a pathway to a 1.5°C-compatible world. The fact that the IEA said yes and produced the report is, in itself, a Big Deal. The IEA has often been seen as too conservative on climate change, and been criticised for underestimating the growth of renewables. The fact the agency was forthright enough to say new oil and gas sites need to stop immediately surprised some in the UK government, and the IEA’s view will bolster the case of more progressive voices there. Let’s not forget the UK recently passed up the opportunity for such a ban. The publication may also influence key moments in the run-up to COP26 and help hasten coal phase-outs and the end of financing for coal. “The IEA report is potentially a big political signal ahead of the G7. We’ll have to see how it influences the G7 discussions, where commitments on coal are a live issue,” says a senior source in the UK government.


Good COP Fatih Birol, the head of the IEA, had a good week with the avalanche of coverage for the net-zero report. I’ve just interviewed him for a longer story in New Scientist soon. Terminator-turned-climate activist Arnold Schwarzenegger gave Sharma a bit of star dust by having him on his YouTube show this week. Arnie said he would be at COP26 “no matter what.” So, a good week for both. Talking of star power, naturalist David Attenborough was named the “people’s advocate” for COP26. “At last the nations will come together to solve the crippling problems that the world, the globe, now faces,” he said. Bad COP US climate envoy John Kerry was rapped for implying that people in the US wouldn’t have to change their diets and lifestyles, because many emissions cuts would come from “technologies we don’t yet have". UK environment minister George Eustice laid out his climate plans for trees and peatland on Tuesday. Unfortunately they went largely ignored, overshadowed by the IEA report and neglected because a lot of the plans were a re-tread of past ones.


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