Wolfgang Knorr: What lies beneath – on the latest net zero scenario by the International Energy Agency

A critical closer look at the practicability of the much hailed recent IEA report exposes many shortcomings

Wolfgang Knorr is a Senior Research Scientist for Physical Geography and Ecosystem Science at Lund University

The latest report by the International Energy Agency (IEA) has been widely hailed by the scientific community as a breakthrough. It presents a scenario for reducing carbon dioxide emissions worldwide that is said to be in line with the Paris Agreement’s climate goal. But does the report live up to the enthusiasm?

The news most widely reported is that the IEA now advocates the early retirement of much of the existing fossil-fuel infrastructure. The argument is that this will make it very difficult from now on to justify the further expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure. Earlier scenarios by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) either required the massive use of unproven technologies to later suck carbon back out of the atmosphere, or a massive decline in global energy consumption, and were therefore widely regarded as unrealistic.

But at a deeper level, reaching net zero is not the problem – the problem is whether we can avoid destabilizing human society and the life support systems we depend on. Another report, published some three years ago by the Melbourne based Breakthrough Institute, made the point that the gravest risk when it comes to climate heating lies in a failure of imagination.

With this motto in mind, I set out to see if the IEA report lives up to its enthusiastic reception. Is net zero a realistic scenario, even if only vaguely? Have the authors taken into account that unexpected things can happen? Does the report take on board issues of fairness, and thus the need for buy-in by citizens? And most importantly, did they take seriously the principle of precaution, so that the pathway becomes a feasible policy option?

This raises a number of specific questions I shall try to answer in this article.

1) How real is the prospect of net zero by 2050?

According to the UN , the emission reduction of 7% globally that was achieved during the pandemic will need to be repeated year on year until 2030 to halve global emissions, as the first stepping stone to complete decarbonisation.

But just a month ago, the IEA’s own press release predicted a record rebound of emissions for this year, with China leading the way. The idea that the recovery from the pandemic could be the road to finally address the climate crisis  now seems utterly unrealistic. There is currently nothing – other than pure declarations – that would suggest that reaching net zero is a realistic goal.

2) The report gives a pathway to net zero by 2050, but is it actually compliant with the goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (°C)?

The report’s net zero pathway is widely portrayed as being in line with the goal of limiting warming to 1.5°C. It uses a carbon budget, or allowed emissions, by the IPCC  of 500 billion tons (Gt) of CO2 between 2020 and 2050. This carbon budget has been calculated to give us a 50% chance of limiting warming to 1.5°C. By giving us a chance equivalent to flipping a coin, the pathway is therefore grossly insufficient for keeping the planet’s temperature within safe limits. A more adequate budget would have been one that gives us a two-thirds chance and also takes into account the possibility of feedbacks, for example a slow-down of the amount of carbon that is being taken up by natural ecosystems on land. This would reduce the budget to 240 Gt CO2, or about six years of current emissions.

The goal of the Paris Agreement is strictly speaking not 1.5 – which is considered an ideal case – but ‘well below 2’. If we risk it and aim at this less ambitious goal with the same two-thirds probability, we could add another 260 Gt of CO2, reaching the budget of the IEA’s scenario. However, the latest round of climate model simulations of the IPCC suggest that such a scenario carries very high risks of bringing warming to well above 2°C: based on a future path similar to the IEA’s net zero scenario, three of twelve climate model simulations achieve ‘well below 2°C’, but six come out between 2 and 2.4°C.

3) Is it true that the report confronts the fossil-fuel industry?

That is how it seems at first sight. However, at closer inspection it turns out that the net zero scenario follows the same narrative that the fossil-fuel industry has been promoting all a long: blame the consumer. While it foresees that only about half of developed fossil fuel reserves will actually be exploited, it does so exclusively by limiting demand for oil, gas and coal. But there are billions of consumers, as opposed to a much small number of fossil fuel producers. From a management standpoint, it would be much easier to limit the right to produce fossil fuels rather than to reduce consumption through carbon pricing or direct regulation. But due to successful lobbying this has never been attempted seriously. The result is that in the IEA scenario, there is a precipitous fall of fossil fuel prices as a response to suppressed demand, potentially creating very strong incentives for free riders to ignore international climate rules and continue the use of fossil energy.

4) Has the report addressed the problem of the reliance on unproven future technologies, or risks from biofuel expansion for food and water?

To some degree. But there is still a substantial increase in biomass production. Given the extremely bad experience we have with industrial scale bioenergy for power generation, this is extremely worrying. Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) – the idea of burning trees in power stations for energy and capturing the CO2 to deposit underground – also still plays a major role, even though it can lead to massive food  and water shortages. In fact, the prospect of BECCS in particular has been associated with deliberately delaying climate action.

5) How is the report on equity?

It foresees that a major source of energy outside of the formal economy, ‘traditional biomass’ is completely terminated in less than nine years from now, a form of energy currently relied upon by 2.3 billion people. It would be replaced by various forms of ‘modern’ bioenergy. Such a scenario would marginalise a huge part of the global population and force them into a formal money economy, often without them having the means for it. This provision seems to be something of a Trojan horse, bringing in the idea of large scale privatization, similar to attempts at privatizing access to water.

It must also be noted that collecting fire wood, when it is done sustainably, is actually carbon neutral, as opposed to industrial scale energy production using whole trees and forests. It can also reduce the flammability of forests and therefore prevent wildfires. Admittedly, as Rainer Janssen of WIP Munich pointed out to me, it is desirable that people have access to clean stoves for reasons of air quality. But this does not need to be through the adoption of ‘modern technologies’ by people who will not be able to afford them.

The wider issue I see here is the report’s one-sided view on technological innovation – paired with an assumption that the economy will continue working as it does now. This will mean large gains for corporations engaged in technological solutions, while the bill will have to be picked up by tax payers and by people on low income through disruption of their way of life.

Another issue is that the scenario foresees the growth of bioenergy crops on 70 million hectares of marginal land or land for livestock grazing. But it does not say anything about where those currently living off the land should go and what will happen to their livelihoods. This silence effectively licenses land grab for bioenergy.

6) Where does the report show a failure of imagination?

The main failure of imagination, in my view, is that it pre-supposes that there are governance structures everywhere on earth that can insure policies are carried out. It just assumes that there will be the ‘political will’ to do so.

As had been pointed out by the Breakthrough Institute, even under current levels of warming substantial sea level rise is possible and could displace a very large number of people, potentially leading to wide spread conflict undermining any existing global governance structures.

Also, with fossil fuels getting very cheap following low demand, the incentive to go back to them at least in some parts of the world will be enormous, and could lead to the unravelling of any political consensus for rapid emission reduction. It is ironic when a report that relies on the neoclassical economic theory of free utility maximizing actors when modelling supply and demand of fossil fuels, simply assumes it is possible to suppress the demand for a prized commodity, against all instincts of ‘utility’, by the shear force of regulation. It thus fails to see that regulations are no more than social concepts that need buy-in.

7) What is the main shortcoming?

That it even sets out a detailed scenario thirty years into the future, although politics is mostly governed by short-term electoral cycles. This is a very significant statement on its own that ignores a huge number of possible scenarios, while sending a powerful message: don’t worry, everything is under control. Interestingly, the report projects only very modest declines at the beginning of the 2020 to 2050 period, making it look more acceptable in the short-term and thus very effectively reinforcing the image that things ‘don’t look so bad’.

8) What is its main advantage?

It has helped to expose the fact that the fossil fuel industry are absolutely banking on future unproven technology to remove carbon out of the atmosphere, which is either dangerous or will remain non-existent. Only a few days after the report’s release, fossil fuel industry spokespeople have come out to insist on the need for more fossil fuel investment, and complained about the lack of sufficient BECCS and other unproven technologies in the IEA’s scenario.

And it demonstrates how difficult it is to be imaginative and move out of the pre-existing framework that innovation always has to be technological, and can never be social, for example. That the innovation we need will be to build trust between different actors at a time of growing inequality and potentially destabilizing extreme events driven by climate warming.

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2 Comments

  1. A good response
    The IEA report is very welcome but its shortcomings of which therr are many , need addressing

  2. The IEA has a very very long history of lying – certainly with respect to the pricing of and impact of renewables. Most of its estimates have been massively wrong – usually by 400 – 1000%. The latest report as the writer points out is more of the same old fossil song. The IEA was founded as a fossil supporting “club” and it is sticking to its remit. The report is largely garbage, Birol is a liar and the IEA should have been closed 10 years ago. Find the above hard? look at any IEA report on RES – all massively wrong.

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