The unevenness of global action also occurs when scientists warn that the damage caused by rising temperatures is already reverberating around the world. A report by the Environmental Protection Agency released last week found that US forest fires are now starting earlier in the year, heat waves are more common, and flooding is more common.
Essentially, if the world’s governments want to change course quickly, the International Energy Agency has offered step-by-step guidance on how to do so. The agency outlined a possible schedule:
This year, nations would stop approving new coal-fired power plants if they weren’t equipped with the carbon capture technology to trap and bury their emissions underground. The nations would also stop authorizing the development of new oil and gas fields beyond those already established.
By 2025, governments around the world would ban the sale of new oil and gas stoves for heating buildings and instead switch to cleaner electric heat pumps.
By 2030, electric vehicles would account for 60 percent of new vehicle sales worldwide; today it is only 5 percent. By 2035, automakers would stop selling new gasoline or diesel-powered passenger cars. By 2050, virtually all cars on the world’s roads will be powered by either batteries or hydrogen.
By 2035, the world’s advanced economies would zero emissions from power plants, moving from emissions from coal and gas plants to technologies like wind, solar, nuclear or carbon capture. By 2040, all of the world’s remaining coal-fired power plants will be closed or upgraded with carbon capture technology.
In 2035, more than half of new heavy trucks would be electric. By 2040, around half of all air travel worldwide would be made with cleaner alternatives to jet fuel such as sustainable biofuels or hydrogen.
The American Petroleum Institute, an oil and gas industry trading group, agreed with the goal of a lower carbon future, but saw a role for oil and gas in the future as well. “Any path to net zero must involve the continued use of natural gas and oil, which will continue to be critical to displacing coal in developing countries and enabling renewable energy,” said Stephen Comstock, vice president of corporate policy for the institute.
The International Energy Agency warned that energy transition on the scale required would require “unprecedented” global collaboration, with wealthier nations helping poorer countries that lack the technological know-how or investment capital to decarbonise.
It would also require a crash research program to improve clean energy technologies.
The world can make tremendous strides in reducing emissions over the next decade using technologies that are already widely used, such as wind turbines, solar panels, and electric vehicles. However, about half of the emissions reductions by 2050 would come from technologies that are still in the demonstration or prototype phase, such as cleaner hydrogen fuels for steel mills, advanced batteries for juggling wind and solar power, and devices for extracting carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Governments need to pay special attention to the geopolitical upheavals that could accompany a rapid transition to clean energy, the agency said. For example, the mining of critical metals such as cobalt and copper would increase sevenfold over the next ten years. The sharp decline in global oil and gas production would likely mean that cheap oil producers in countries like the Middle East would take a dominant share of the remaining market.
Other challenges abound. While the pursuit of clean energy could create around 30 million new jobs worldwide, another 5 million people in the fossil fuel industry could become unemployed. And today, more than 785 million people around the world lack access to electricity, and the agency warned that moving away from fossil fuels shouldn’t leave them behind.
“This doesn’t contradict what other academic reports have said too much, but it is important that this be said by the International Energy Agency,” said David Victor, climate expert at the University of California at San Diego, of the report prior to its release. “Companies or governments could come in and say they disagree with the details of what needs to happen, but this report is essentially the starting point for those discussions.”
The agency concluded that limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius remains technically and economically feasible, but that there is little room for error or delay. “The achievement of net zero emissions,” the report concluded, “depends on a unique, unwavering focus by all governments – working with one another, as well as with businesses, investors and citizens.”