Energy Transition

Back to the future: The story behind the IEA’s Net Zero Roadmap

This article is published in collaboration with the IEA
IEA's Net Zero Roadmap highlights the steps that can be taken for a more sustainable future

IEA's Net Zero Roadmap highlights the steps that can be taken for a more sustainable future Image: Denys Nevozhai on Unsplash

Fatih Birol
Executive Director, International Energy Agency
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Decarbonizing Energy

  • The IEA has published a new report outlining how we can achieve net zero by 2050.
  • IEA's Net Zero Roadmap details how to do this while ensuring stable and affordable energy supplies, providing universal energy access, and enabling economic growth.
  • The report also examines key uncertainties, such as the roles of bioenergy, carbon capture, and behavioural changes in reaching net zero.

“The last 12 months have seen enormous upheavals in energy markets around the world, yet the challenges of transforming the global energy system remain urgent and daunting.”

This may sound like the opening of a new IEA report about the critical need to accelerate the transition to clean energy as economies recover from the COVID-19 crisis. But these words are actually 12 years old. It’s the first line of the IEA’s World Energy Outlook 2009. Back then, as the world started to recover from the global financial crisis and recession, we highlighted an “unprecedented, yet relatively narrow, window of opportunity to take action to concentrate investment on low-carbon technology”.

Backdrop of the Net Zero Roadmap

To illustrate that window of opportunity, we included a pioneering new scenario called the 450 Scenario. The new scenario identified a clear pathway to limit the long-term concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere to 450 parts per million of CO2-equivalent, an objective that was gaining support around the world and reflected the scientific consensus at the time.

Our words from 2009 continue to ring true: “Continuing on today’s energy path, without any change in government policy, would mean rapidly increasing dependence on fossil fuels, with alarming consequences for climate change and energy security.” Instead, we argued, the world has to pursue a “comprehensive and rapid transformation in the way we produce, transport and use energy – a veritable low-carbon revolution.”

Have you read?

I remember well the reaction to our 450 Scenario in 2009, as I was the newly appointed Chief Economist of the IEA, and I designed it. It was the first such scenario for the energy sector to be mapped out in such detail. It drew praise from some quarters, but there were also people questioning why we included such a radical scenario in the World Energy Outlook. Had the IEA lost its bearings? Wasn’t its role to focus on oil security, not climate issues?

But this misses what the IEA is about. For many years, we have been focused on shaping a secure and sustainable energy future for all, which requires transitioning to clean energy. A secure energy future demands this – a world ravaged by climate change from fossil fuel emissions won’t be secure. At the same time, transitions to clean energy across countries and sectors won’t succeed if they undermine the supplies of energy that billions of people rely on every day to go about their lives. And at the same time, we need to make sure the hundreds of millions of people deprived of basic energy services many of us take for granted can gain access to them as soon as possible.

With all this in mind, we continued to deepen and develop the 450 Scenario until it became the Sustainable Development Scenario – providing the inspiration for the proliferation of energy transition scenarios that started to appear from other organisations in the 2010s.

Then, with the Paris Agreement and the publication of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 °C, we needed to consider how to modify our own approach. Starting in 2019, we steadily built up the capacity to examine even more ambitious scenarios alongside the Sustainable Development Scenario. This intense two-year process culminated in the special report that we released this week, our Roadmap for the global energy sector to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 – and which also ensures universal access worldwide to electricity and clean cooking solutions by 2030.

Key milestones in the IEA's 2050 Net Zero Roadmap
Key milestones in the IEA's 2050 Net Zero Roadmap Image: IEA

As I reflect on the past few days, I find myself getting flashbacks to 2009. A major new IEA scenario. A strong call to transform our energy systems. Plaudits from some corners, criticism from others.

IEA's Net Zero Roadmap

Some things don’t change. Then, as now, the IEA continues to provide a reference for the energy sector on how to get on to a more secure and sustainable course, based on the most up-to-date scientific consensus and the ambitions of governments around the world.

It is important to understand that our work isn’t a binding prescription. Our Net Zero Roadmap is designed to illuminate the essential debates on energy and climate in societies around the world and inform policy-makers so they understand the implications of their actions – and of their inaction. Our Net Zero Roadmap sets out a pathway to net zero by 2050. We do not claim it is the only one. Different countries are in very different places on the path to net zero, and each will chart its own course. The IEA is ready to help countries design their own national roadmaps – and to support the international coordination and cooperation that a successful global transition to net zero will require.

Right now, however, the gap between ambitious rhetoric and actual policy action from governments means that any global pathway to net zero by 2050 has become even more narrow and difficult since 2009. Some real achievements have been made; the fantastic growth of clean-energy technologies like solar, wind and electric cars are in large part thanks to strong policy efforts by governments. This is the kind of progress that our 450 Scenario called for back in 2009. But at the same time, emissions have kept rising as fossil fuels have continued to dominate an expanding global energy system. The response has not been commensurate with the scale of the challenge.

Figures for key technology ramp up by 2030 in the Net Zero Roadmap
Figures for key technology ramp up by 2030 in the Net Zero Roadmap Image: IEA

I have not given up hope, though, and the IEA is more committed than ever to our mission. After I became Executive Director in late 2015, we initiated a modernisation strategy that significantly expanded our work to support and accelerate energy transitions around the world. In the past five years, Mexico has become one of our member countries, and we have welcomed eight major emerging economies to the IEA family as Association countries, including Brazil, China, India, Indonesia and South Africa. Our deepening work with those countries to help them implement their energy transitions is part of what makes me optimistic that there is still a viable way for all of us to get to safer ground.

I am very aware of how far there is to go. Ultimately, the IEA is all about data and real-world analysis. We know better than anyone the gap between today’s rhetoric and today’s reality – between where the energy sector is heading and where it needs to go. And we can see the pitfalls that lie along the way. What you can be sure of from the IEA is that we will continue to be data- and evidence-driven, keeping our eyes on all the details and movements in the energy sector, alert to new vulnerabilities and how governments can address them through credible policies and effective implementation.

When I look back in 10 years’ time, I very much hope that – unlike what happened after our 2009 report – the energy and emissions pathways the world has followed will have been in line with those we have set out in our Net Zero Roadmap. Not because it will show that the world is following the IEA’s guidance – but because it will mean we are well on the way to minimising the devastating consequences of climate change.

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