Energy with Net-Zero Emissions - A New Reality

Posted on 23 May 2021

The world must urgently embrace dramatic changes in the energy sector to transition to a safe and sustainable energy future, and for the critical restoration of nature, writes Dean Cooper, WWF Global Energy Transition Lead.

The International Energy Agency’s (IEA) recent report, Net-Zero by 2050: A Roadmap for the Energy Sector, can really be a game-changer with its clear global direction to a renewable energy world.

Key themes in the report include a focus on the 1.5°C limit for global warming, no investment in new fossil fuels, a four-fold expansion of wind and solar, electric vehicles to become the norm, and a major boost in energy investment. The essential need for low-emission industry, buildings and transport is also highlighted. These targets all support the calls from WWF for a world powered by 100% renewable energy. We’re already planning to expand ongoing programmes that aim to replace fossil fuels, increase energy access, and improve efficiency, all as part of a just energy transformation.

A common global net-zero goal for the energy sector can accelerate the transition needed to match what science says we must do to keep global temperatures below 1.5°C. Governments are the primary audience for the report, according to the IEA, since they must provide the policy changes required for their countries to enter this new “race to zero”. This is not a race against other countries, but a joint race against time.

This IEA intervention has created the opening for global decision-makers to direct us to a world with a greater chance of a climate safe future. We need government buy-in to introduce the right policies. And consumer engagement to demand energy efficient homes, appliances, and cars.

Most importantly, the IEA roadmap has demanded a new approach by undermining the confidence of financiers. Fossil fuel extraction requires massive upfront investment in the related infrastructure, with financial returns only after several years of successful operation. There is now no guarantee that the demand for coal, oil or gas will still exist in a few years’ time, after any new fossil fuel location is exploited. The uncertainty surrounding any such investment is suddenly a major barrier. The risk is simply too high.

On this basis, those developing countries that have been expecting to grow a fossil fuel market will need to adjust their expectations and help to replace the anticipated new income streams. The positive news for developing countries is that solar power is the new fuel of the future. That means potential earnings for sunny countries that can equal, and possibly even exceed, the previous fossil fuel expectations. The Power Pools in Southern, Eastern, and West Africa need to act fast to exploit this prospect to the full. The end of fossil fuels can really be an opportunity for all.

The IEA roadmap is one pathway to net-zero, not the only solution. We recognize that the path is narrow and there are some clear fundamentals. We should debate, revise, and agree the approach to bioenergy, carbon capture and storage, hydropower, and hydrogen use, which are areas that the IEA could have stepped up even more. The roadmap has identified options for most of our future clean energy needs. But one key element is missing - there’s almost no mention of nature.

The roadmap fails to acknowledge that energy is always a means to an end, not an endpoint itself. Using, low-carbon, sustainable renewable energy will be vital to maintain the delicate web of life on which people and wildlife depend for our food, water, shelter. But we have to manage the trade-offs with nature, including the impact of renewables. This means matching the best renewable energy source for any given location, aiming to ensure nature-positive design and, where it cannot be achieved, agreeing the least-damaging options, or indeed no-go areas for energy production, even with renewables.

In short, at WWF we’re very pleased to see clear target dates from the IEA for no more fossil fuels and the commitment to our call for 100% clean energy. We recognize that this is just the start of recovery from the damage that we’ve already inflicted on the natural ecosystems that we rely on. It means a dramatic shift to our way of life, and the restoration of nature should be acknowledged as the goal. But at least we now have a common direction, so we can work together and learn from all our joint experience.

The growing market for electric vehicles can significantly reduce our dependence on fossil fuels to power transport systems.
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