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Clean energy technologies need a major boost to keep net zero by 2050 within reach

4 November 2021

The International Energy Agency’s latest and most comprehensive assessment of clean energy technology progress worldwide shows that a step change in action and ambition is needed across all energy technologies and sectors to keep the goal of net zero emissions by 2050 within reach.

Of the 46 energy technologies and sectors assessed in the IEA’s latest edition of Tracking Clean Energy Progress (TCEP), only two are on track with the IEA’s Net Zero Emissions by 2050 Scenario. These latest findings follow IEA analysis showing that global energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are set for their second largest increase in history in 2021, while clean energy accounts for just 3% of global economic recovery spending to date.

For the first time, this year’s TCEP tracks progress against the Net Zero Emissions by 2050 Scenario, which was set out in the IEA’s landmark Global Roadmap. The scenario represents a narrow but feasible pathway for the global energy sector to achieve net zero CO2 emissions by 2050, universal energy access by 2030 and major improvements in air quality, while also ensuring stable and affordable energy supplies and enabling robust economic growth. Previous iterations of TCEP assessed progress against the Sustainable Development Scenario.

Despite the higher ambitions of the new benchmark and disruptions from the Covid-19 crisis, some clean energy technologies continued to show progress and remain “on track” with net zero ambitions. Electric car sales rose by 40% in 2020 to reach a record 3 million, despite overall car sales falling by 16% due to the effects of the pandemic. Initial data for 2021 suggests further growth. Lighting technologies continued to show healthy momentum, with LEDs reaching over 50% of the global lighting market.

Several emerging technologies saw encouraging progress, but these positive trends need to accelerate rapidly over the current decade to achieve deployment levels in line with a net zero by 2050 trajectory. Additions of battery storage capacity jumped by 50% last year to their highest ever level, while hydrogen saw a record year for policy action and low-carbon production. Momentum behind carbon capture, utilisation and storage has increased in recent years, but its deployment remains far below the level required in a pathway to net zero by mid-century.

In total, 18 technology areas need further improvements, while 26 are “not on track” with the Net Zero Emissions by 2050 Scenario.

One of the most significant sectors that isn’t on track is power generation, whose emissions fell by 3% in 2020 due to pandemic-induced lockdowns and a record share of renewables, but are set to rebound in 2021, driven by increased electricity demand and coal-fired generation. The rapid decarbonisation of the power system is critical for the success of the clean energy transition, since power generation accounts for 40% of energy-related CO2 emissions and electricity is increasingly being used to meet energy demand in key sectors of the economy.

All three energy end-use sectors – industry, buildings and transport – are not on track. In industry, much stronger progress is needed on material and energy efficiency, the uptake of renewable fuels, and development and deployment of low-carbon processes. To align with the Net Zero Emissions by 2050 Scenario, all new buildings need to be zero-carbon-ready as soon as 2030 along with one-fifth of existing buildings through retrofits. Less than 1% of existing buildings today are zero-carbon ready. In transport, stronger policies are needed to encourage shifts to using low-carbon modes of transport, greater energy efficiency measures, and the building out of infrastructure to support zero emission vehicles, as well as the development and uptake of those vehicle in long-distance transport.

Progress on clean energy innovation will be crucial to help develop and deploy the full range of clean energy technologies needed to decarbonise the sectors, in particular those where emissions are the most challenging to reduce, such as aviation, shipping and heavy industry.

Flaring and methane emissions from oil and gas operations – responsible for around 7% of global energy sector GHG emissions – are set to rebound in 2021 along with increased oil and gas production. In the NZE, methane emissions from fossil fuel operations fall by 75% and all non-emergency flaring is eliminated by 2030.

The analysis in TCEP draws on the IEA’s unique understanding of energy markets, modelling, technologies and statistics to track and assess progress on technology deployment, performance, investment, policy and innovation. It also benefits from the IEA’s extensive global technology network, which involves over 6,000 experts in the Technology Collaboration Programme.

Given the urgency and scale of action needed for clean energy transitions around the world, TCEP features a comprehensive list of recommended actions for governments, industry and other key actors in the global energy system.

TCEP is part of the IEA’s broader efforts on tracking energy transitions to help inform decision makers and the general public on where to focus innovation, investment and policy attention to achieve climate and sustainable development goals.