If the world hopes to eliminate carbon dioxide emissions by mid-century, nearly half of the reductions will need to come from technologies that are still in their infancy today.
This discovery, in a report of the International Energy Agency, released Tuesday, underscores the need for aggressive investments in research, development and scaling up of clean energy technologies.
The IEA’s roadmap to phase out energy-related emissions by 2050 – and offer a chance to cap the rise in global temperatures to 1.5 ˚C – includes important roles for existing technologies barely or much too expensive today. These include batteries containing much more energy, clean hydrogen as a fuel or feedstock for industrial processes, liquid biofuels for aviation, and equipment that cost-effectively captures carbon dioxide emissions from aircraft. factories and power stations fired by gas or coal.
The report also highlights the need for significant investment in tools to remove carbon dioxide from the air. These include machines with direct air capture, which exist but are very expensive today, and what is called bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (or BECCS), the idea that we can use plant materials as fuel and capture the emissions they produce during combustion.
The IEA findings are fueling an ongoing debate over whether the world should focus on creating new technologies to tackle climate change or on aggressively deploying those we have.
American Climate Tsar John Kerry triggered an online reaction on that issue this weekend by telling the BBC, “Scientists tell me that 50% of the cuts we need to make to get to net zero will come from technologies we don’t have yet.”
For its part, the IEA described them as technologies “currently in the demonstration or prototype phase” or “not yet available on the market”.
But the report makes it clear that the world has no choice between innovation or deployment. It presents a timeline showing how quickly we also need to develop the technologies we already have to meet the mid-century goals.
By 2030, the world needs to add more than 1,000 gigawatts of wind and solar power capacity per year, which is just a little less total electrical system in the United States today. Electric passenger vehicles must reach 60% of new sales by 2030, while half of the heavy goods vehicles purchased must be electric vehicles by 2035. And by 2045, half of the global heat demand must be satisfied by heat pumps, which can run on clean electricity.
In short, we need to make rapid progress, on everything at once.