Climate Action

This chart shows the energy milestones we need to reach to achieve net zero emissions by 2050


The world must turn to renewable sources of energy if we are going to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 Image: Unsplash/Melissa Bradley

Sean Fleming
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The Net Zero Transition

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  • CO2 emissions from energy and industry have increased by 60% since 1992.
  • All of the existing climate pledges aren’t enough to deliver net zero emissions by 2050.
  • The International Energy Agency has outlined 400 milestones the world must reach to limit the global temperature rise to 1.5C.
  • Renewables like solar and wind must become the dominant sources of the world’s energy.
  • Achieving that calls for close cooperation and a commitment to positive, incremental change.

Despite all the pledges by governments to tackle the climate crisis, CO2 emissions from energy and industry have increased by 60% since 1992, when the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was signed.

Even if all the existing climate pledges are achieved, they won’t be enough to reduce global energy-related CO2 emissions to net zero by 2050. Which means limiting the global temperature rise to 1.5C could be impossible.

Have you read?

This gloomy-sounding prediction comes from the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) Net Zero by 2050 report.

But the report lays out a plan for transitioning to a net-zero energy system by 2050, with stable and affordable energy supplies, universal energy access and robust economic growth.

The plan details how renewables like solar and wind must become the dominant sources of the world’s energy, and looks at what the IEA calls “key uncertainties” such as bioenergy, carbon capture, and the behavioural changes needed to reach net zero emissions by 2050.

The path that takes us from scrapping coal now to net zero emissions by 2050 Image: IEA

It also details some of the key milestones that must be hit, and plots them out in the chart above.

“Our Roadmap shows the priority actions that are needed today to ensure the opportunity of net zero emissions by 2050 – narrow but still achievable – is not lost,” said Fatih Birol, the IEA’s Executive Director in a statement accompanying the publication of the report. He also described climate change as “the greatest challenge humankind has ever faced”.

The roadmap to net zero emissions by 2050

Coal reduction

The pathway laid out by the IEA begins with a call to ban all new unabated coal plants (those that make no provision to reduce CO2 emissions through initiatives such as carbon capture and storage).

Targets for wind and solar

Annual additions of solar power must reach 630 gigawatts by 2030, the IEA says, while wind power needs to reach 390 gigawatts – four times the record level set in 2020. “For solar PV, this is equivalent to installing the world’s current largest solar park roughly every day.”

Research & development boost

“Most of the global reductions in CO2 emissions between now and 2030 in the net-zero pathway come from technologies readily available today,” the IEA says. But to hit net zero in 2050, many technologies which are currently only prototypes will need to have become ubiquitous. Governments must increase and reprioritize their energy R&D investments, the IEA urges – and fast.


Closing the energy gap

The IEA estimates there are 785 million people without access to safe, reliable electricity and 2.6 billion people who lack non-polluting cooking facilities. Closing that gap will cost around $40 billion a year, but ensuring everyone is included, the IEA says, “is an integral part of the Roadmap’s net-zero pathway”.

Creating jobs

The net-zero pathway shows that, by 2030, annual energy investment will reach $5 trillion. That will add an extra 0.4 percentage points a year to global GDP growth, the IEA says – its forecasts are based on a joint analysis with the International Monetary Fund. This spending surge is expected to create millions of jobs in clean energy, as well as engineering, manufacturing and construction.


What’s the World Economic Forum doing about climate change?

Close collaboration

“Mobilizing the capital for large-scale infrastructure calls for closer cooperation between developers, investors, public financial institutions and governments,” the IEA says. Although it is the private sector that will ultimately finance most of the additional investment, public finance will need to be available, too – particularly in developing economies.

Investors may need to see projects are properly supported by governments in order to feel comfortable with new levels of risk and, the report says, “many emerging market and developing economies … will need to reform their policy and regulatory frameworks to attract more private finance.”

As a result, net zero emissions by 2050 shall not be a distant goal.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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Climate ActionEnergy TransitionNature and Biodiversity
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