On the climate crisis, there’s good news and bad news.
That’s according to the latest report from the International Energy Agency, or IEA, taking stock of humanity’s progress in addressing the problem. Since the 2015 Paris agreement, governments have made substantial progress in curbing their climate pollution, the report says. The deployment of clean technologies is fast accelerating, and global temperatures are on a less dangerous path than they were a decade ago
Yet that progress will need to accelerate faster to meet the targets set in the Paris agreement to limit global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) and preferably to no more than 1.5°C (2.7°F) above preindustrial temperatures. Achieving the more ambitious latter goal will require the world to reach net zero emissions by around 2050.
The new report provides a clear picture of where recent progress has been sufficient, where it’s falling short, and what it will take to get on track to achieve net zero global climate pollution by 2050.
The good news
Before the Paris agreement, humanity was on track to cause a potentially catastrophic 3.5°C (6.3°F) global warming by the year 2100. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, among other major consequences, this level of global warming would put 40% to 70% of species around the world at risk of extinction. Less than a decade later, the climate policies passed by countries around the world have put us on a path for about 2.5°C (4.5°F) warming by 2100. It’s not yet enough to meet the Paris targets, and up to 30% of global species would still face extinction risks at this level of warming, but it’s a substantial improvement from our pre-Paris path
The report forecasts that the world is on track to avert the production of 7.5 billion tons of heat-trapping carbon dioxide between 2015 and 2030 compared to the pre-Paris business-as-usual scenario. Solar panels account for 40% of that reduction. Wind turbines are expected to be responsible for the next-biggest chunk at 27%, and electric vehicles for a further 13%.
In fact, between 2015 and 2023 the number of solar panels built around the world increased by more than 400%, electric car sales increased by nearly 2,000%, residential heat pump sales increased by 225%, and battery storage capacity additions increased by 2,500%.
Of all the solar panels installed in the history of human civilization, close to one-third were deployed in just the past two years. Similarly, about 60% of all electric car sales and 60% of energy storage battery installations — ever — occurred in the same period. These technologies are key to achieving net zero climate pollution by 2050.
To get on track for a net zero 2050 path, the International Energy Agency estimated that the number of solar panels installed around the world must be about five times larger in 2030 than it is today, and electric vehicles will need to account for more than 65% of new global car sales that year, up from around 16% today. Though those numbers sound daunting, the agency reported that “The announced manufacturing pipeline for solar PV and batteries is projected to be sufficient to meet the [net zero] Scenario deployment needs to 2030.”
And the report also noted that several key fossil fuel technologies are already on their way out: “Fossil fuel-based electricity capacity additions peaked in 2012 and declined to less than half their peak level by 2022, while sales of [internal combustion engine] vehicles peaked in 2017 with a 25% decline from this peak by 2022.”
As a result, the International Energy Agency forecasts that global climate pollution will peak by the mid-2020s. That’s consistent with a new analysis from clean energy think tank Ember, which found that global power sector climate pollution rose by just 0.2% in the first half of 2023, suggesting that the “world is teetering at the peak of power sector emissions.”
The United States has been making progress thanks in large part to the recent passage of laws like the Inflation Reduction Act. As a result, though the U.S. was on track to see a 12% increase in its climate pollution from 2022 to 2030 before the Paris agreement, the country is now headed toward a 23% reduction over that period. Nearly half of that reduced pollution will be due to the deployment of solar panels and wind turbines.
The bad news
Though solar panel installations and electric car sales are on track for what’s needed to meet a net zero pathway, some other technologies are not. Wind turbine manufacturing has struggled with supply chain disruptions and higher costs stemming from the COVID pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Sales of electric heat pumps — which efficiently warm and cool buildings — are growing rapidly in the European Union but too slowly in other countries like the United States. Oil and gas companies need to cut the methane leakage from their operations by 75% by 2030, much of which could be done with net cost savings as the companies would then sell the captured methane, but so far the industry has been slow to plug those leaks.
Countries also need to build electrical transmission lines much more quickly to allow new solar and wind power to connect to the grid, with the International Energy Agency calling permitting “a particularly time-consuming bottleneck.” Manufacturing all of these clean technologies will also require substantial amounts of critical minerals like copper, lithium, cobalt, and nickel, but so far the anticipated supply of these minerals by 2030 is short of what’s needed to meet a net zero pathway.
Countries will need to pass more policies to accelerate the clean energy transition. In the International Energy Agency’s net zero scenario, “All regions introduce pricing of CO2 emissions alongside other policies designed to bring about clean energy transitions. … Carbon pricing is implemented first in advanced economies.” But though some developed countries like those in Europe and Canada have implemented robust climate pollution pricing systems, others like the United States and Australia have not yet followed suit.
Read: Pros and cons of a carbon tax
The net zero scenario also requires the early retirement of some existing fossil fuel infrastructure. The report concluded that globally, planned investments in fossil fuels between 2023 and 2035 are $3.6 trillion higher than in its net zero scenario.
Time is running short
The report also considered a delayed action scenario in which global emissions don’t reach net zero until the mid-2060s. In that scenario, we then later decide to remove carbon from the atmosphere to reduce global warming from the resulting 1.7°C (3.1°F) back down to 1.5°C (2.7°F) above preindustrial temperatures.
The International Energy Agency warns that this scenario would come with greater risks of irreversible changes to ecosystems and other climate damages. What’s more, removing carbon pollution from the atmosphere is far more expensive than preventing its release in the first place. As a result, the agency concluded that this scenario would cost the world $1.3 trillion more per year than one in which the extra emissions are avoided.
In short, in order to avoid the increased risks that come with additional global warming and associated climate changes, the agency finds that maximal action is necessary today to accelerate the transition to clean energy solutions. Any delay will lock in fossil fuel infrastructure that must be retired early as stranded assets, immense costs from future atmospheric carbon removals, and/or the dangerous levels of global warming that will result from missing the Paris targets.