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IEA: Net zero carbon hinges on support for innovation today
Government support is critical to develop the technologies which can deliver net zero carbon emissions

The International Energy Agency’s (IEA) Energy Technology Perspectives 2020 report, published September 10, outlines the huge transformation needed to get the world to net zero emissions by 2070, while also highlighting a faster 2050 net zero transition pathway. It argues that government will need to play an ‘outsize’ role in this process, particularly in support of research and development and new technology deployment.

New foundations

Today, the global energy system is underpinned by mature markets in three key fuels, coal, oil and natural gas, which together account for about 70% of final energy demand.

In the IEA‘s Sustainable Development Scenario (SDS) — a pathway which would deliver net zero carbon emissions — this would have to change radically so that electricity, hydrogen, synthetic fuels and bioenergy make up the same share of final energy demand currently met by fossil fuels.

Extending electricity’s reach

Total decarbonisation of the power sector would get the world only one third of the way towards net zero, the IEA says. More attention needs to be paid to the wider energy system as transport, industry and buildings together account for more than 55% of total energy system CO2 emissions. Electrification in these sectors would have the biggest single impact in terms of greenhouse gas emissions reductions, but it means a huge expansion of electricity generating capacity as demand for electricity, under the SDS, would more than double.

Yet electricity, though fundamental to the energy transition, can not do everything. In areas such as chemicals, steel, cement and shipping other solutions are required. A large amount of electricity will be needed to produce hydrogen, for example. The global capacity of electrolysers, which use electricity to split water molecules, needs to rise from just 0.2 GW today to 3,300 GW by 2070, the IEA says.

Hydrogen will form a bridge between the power sector and industries where the direct use of electricity is challenging. Carbon Capture Utilisation and Storage is another key technology, according to the agency, which will be needed to produce low carbon hydrogen from natural gas, as well as to provide the feedstock for the production of synthetic fuels and directly to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. Modern biofuel use will need to triple from today’s levels.

Supporting innovation

Significantly, just over one-third of the cumulative emissions reductions in the SDS come from technologies which are not currently commercially available. As such, the clean energy technologies of tomorrow hinge on innovation today, the agency says.

In particular, the IEA says governments need to tackle emissions from existing assets, strengthen markets for technologies at an early stage of adoption, develop and upgrade infrastructure that allows new technology adoption, boost support for research and innovation and expand international collaboration.

Photo credit: IEA

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