Ours is a global society accustomed to eternal debate and marginal change distributed over many years. But it won’t do in the era of climate change.That’s the message of the International Energy Agency’s “Net Zero by 2050” report. The energy transition, the historically staid body says, is an all-hands-on-deck crisis that “hinges on a singular, unwavering focus from all governments—working together with one another, and with businesses, investors and citizens.”
The report is chock full of numbers. Reaching the net-zero target, according to IEA modeling, starts with spending $820 billion on electric grids annually by 2030. Increasing the number of charging points for electric vehicles to 40 million in the coming decade from 1 million today. Building 20 giga-factories churning out lithium-ion batteries every year for the next decade. And so on.
Consider this sentence, taken from a passage about the serious security implications for those currently reliant on fossil-fuel production: “No new oil and natural gas fields are needed in our pathway, and oil and natural gas supplies become increasingly concentrated in a small number of low-cost producers.”
“In our pathway” is carrying a lot of water in this sentence. It’s a pathway designed to conform to what scientists say, based on decades of evidence, are actions necessary to avoid civilization-scale catastrophes that await as the planet warms beyond 1.5º Celsius. It’s also a pathway designed to ensure, according to the IEA’s mandate, “secure and affordable energy supplies to foster economic growth.”
The IEA’s results are a stunning break from both recent work that fell short of envisioning a net-zero world and its half-century mission to maintain stability in fossil-fuel energy markets. “The way we see this scenario is that it’s a very, very narrow pathway,” said Laura Cozzi, the IEA’s chief energy modeler, “but it’s still feasible.”
This mandate must be balanced with economic danger to oil-and-gas producing nations and companies from shutting down fossil fuels. Jobs can vaporize and tax receipts plummet. Energy supply and demand, after all, shaped the 20th century political order.