Solving climate crisis will require 'total transformation' of global energy use, IEA report says

To solve the climate change crisis, human beings must stop using gasoline-powered cars within 14 years, abandon the pursuit of new coal mines, end oil exploration and set about "a total transformation of the energy systems that underpin our economies," according to a bracing new report by the International Energy Agency.

Titled "Net Zero by 2050," the report, released Tuesday, examines the pledges made by world governments to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions and concludes that the goal of keeping global temperatures from rising 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels will prove "extremely challenging."

"The number of countries that have pledged to reach net-zero emissions by mid-century or soon after continues to grow, but so do global greenhouse gas emissions," the report states. "This gap between rhetoric and action needs to close if we have a fighting chance of reaching net zero by 2050 and limiting the rise in global temperatures to 1.5 °C."

Two people stand before a sunset near steam rising from cooling towers of a power plant
Steam rises from a coal-fired power plant near Bergheim, Germany, in February. (Lukas Schulze/Getty Images)

In its report, the IEA lays out 400 steps that, if taken immediately, would meet the goal of cutting current greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030 and down to nearly zero in 2050. In the event that such a massive, united global undertaking were successful, global temperatures could be kept below a level that would cause mass extinction, devastating sea level rise, unprecedented death from worsening heat waves, and other consequences that the Environmental Protection Agency has found are already occurring.

The findings in the report by the IEA, which advises world governments on energy policy, track closely with a study released in April by the United Nations World Meteorological Organization warning that “time is fast running out” to keep global temperatures in check.

In 2018, the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued its landmark report on the need to keep global temperatures from rising above 1.5°C to avert the worst consequences of climate change.

At an April climate summit of world leaders, President Biden announced a new U.S. target to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 50 to 52 percent over 2005 levels by the year 2030. China, which accounted for 27 percent of global emissions in 2019, has pledged this year to become carbon-neutral by 2060.

The pledges made by the two countries with the highest emissions, as well as those of other industrialized nations in the Paris Agreement, are mostly nonbinding, aspirational goals, the IEA report notes. But "there are still pathways to reach net zero by 2050," it states, even though "that pathway remains narrow and extremely challenging, requiring all stakeholders — governments, businesses, investors and citizens — to take action this year and every year after so that the goal does not slip out of reach."

A protest sign in the grass reads
A sign protesting fossil fuels on the lawn outside the U.S. Capitol in 2019. (Sarah Silbiger/Reuters)

According to the report, the actions required to transform global energy consumption and production include:

  • Increasing the use of renewable sources of energy from 29 percent in 2020 to 90 percent in 2050

  • Halting construction of all new coal plants this year, unless they are built with carbon-capture technology

  • Implementing a ban in 2025 on the sale of new oil and gas furnaces to heat buildings

  • Phasing out the sale of automobiles that use gasoline by 2035

  • Conversion of vehicle fleets to either electric or hydrogen fuel sources by 2050

  • Shifting power plants away from carbon emissions to renewable sources of energy by 2035

  • Closing all coal-fired power plants not fitted with carbon-capture technology by 2040

  • Transitioning half of all plane-travel energy sources to hydrogen or biofuels by 2040

The report, however, is quick to acknowledge that meeting the goals it lays out will be enormously difficult.

"The world has a huge challenge ahead of it to move net zero by 2050 from a narrow possibility to a practical reality," it states. "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."


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