A net-zero carbon future by 2050 is still feasible says IRENA

The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) launched a preview of its World Energy Transitions Outlook on the 16th of March 2021. Dolf Gielen, Ricardo Gorini and Gayathri Prakash of the IRENA Innovation and Technology Centre give insight into some of the initial findings.

The preview of the World Energy Transitions Outlook provides details on how to reduce global CO2 emissions to net-zero between now and 2050, in line with a 50% chance of staying within 1.5 degrees of warming by 2100, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This requires a steep and continuous downward CO2 emissions trajectory from today. The starting point is a remaining cumulative global energy and process CO2 emissions budget of 500 Gt. Policies in place (PES scenario[1]) will only yield a stabilisation of energy and process emissions, therefore, radical change is need. The announcements for net-zero and carbon neutrality that cover 70-80% of global emissions must be translated into actionable strategies and policies.

The required energy transition is profound, as depicted in IRENA’s 1.5C climate pathway:

  • Annual energy intensity improvements must rise from 1.2% in recent years to around 3%. Renewable power, electrification and circular economy have a key role to play in reducing energy intensity, on top of the conventional energy efficiency technologies;
  • Annual renewable energy share growth in primary energy needs to accelerate eight fold from recent years;
  • Renewable power generation capacity needs to grow from over 2 500 GW today to 27 500 GW by 2050, a growth of 840 GW per year, a four-fold increase of the annual capacity additions from recent years (around 200 – 250 GW);
  • Electric vehicle sales need to grow from 4% to 100% of all vehicle sales and electric vehicle stock needs to grow from 7 million in 2020 to 1.8 billion in 2050;
  • Hydrogen demand needs to grow from 120 Mt to 613 Mt in 2050, a five-fold increase. The share of clean hydrogen needs to grow from 2% to 100%, with on average 160 GW electrolysers added every year between now and 2050 (from a base of 0.3 GW installed capacity in 2020). By 2050, around two-thirds of supply would be green hydrogen, one-third blue hydrogen;
  • The total primary supply of biomass needed to realise the energy transition to net-zero emissions is just over 150 EJ, nearly a tripling of primary biomass use in 2018. Based on detailed assessment of the sustainable biomass supply potential this seems feasible.
  • CO2 capture and storage (CCS) use needs to grow from 0.04 Gt per annum in 2020 to 7-8 Gt captured in 2050, with bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) accounting for half for the total amount captured and stored. Each one of these steps is challenging, and all of them together must be put in place simultaneously in order to stay within the carbon budget.

The key energy transition strategy components are robust and in line with other energy scenarios and studies. Most of the technologies for a net-zero energy system are available today and while technology cost must be reduced further and deployment can be accelerated through innovations, it is imperative to ramp up the deployment now. Over 90% of the solutions in 2050 involve renewable energy through direct supply, electrification, energy efficiency, green hydrogen and BECCS. An important finding is that the trajectory for a 2-degree scenario and a 1.5-degree scenario are largely the same in terms of technology and strategies that are deployed. The policy implication is that the direction of efforts is robust. What matters is that we start now.

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At least for the energy component, the analysis suggests that an elimination of emissions is feasible between now and 2050, based on established technologies. However, it is important to continue cost reduction efforts in the coming years in order to further reduce costs and drive the pace of transition.

Figure 1: Emissions mitigation in the 1.5C scenario

Renewables’ share of primary energy supply must grow from 14% in 2018 to 74% in 2050, to meet the 1.5C scenario. Fossil fuel use will decline by more than 75% by 2050, with natural gas accounting for the bulk of remaining fossil fuel use. However, use of natural gas will most likely be limited to the production of “blue” hydrogen, coupled with carbon capture and storage technology, and some industrial processes and power generation.

The transition is affordable. Total energy sector investments increase from $98 trillion in the Planned Energy Scenario (PES) under current plans and planned policies to $131 trillion in the 1.5C scenario, a 34% growth. The types of investment change dramatically with energy transition investments growing from 56% to 83% of total investments and fossil fuel investments reduced accordingly. Annual energy investments would amount to $4.4 trillion per year over the next three decades. To put that number in perspective, global GDP amounted to $81 trillion in 2019 and GDP is projected to increase 2.5-fold by 2050.

Figure 2: Additional energy sector Investment needs 2021-2050 in the 1.5C scenario

The benefits of the energy transition exceed the cost. Benefits can be split into reduced fossil fuel supply cost and reduced externalities due to climate change mitigation and a reduction of local air pollution health impacts. The externalities are critical in this assessment. It points to the need for policy intervention to make the energy transition a reality, in order to internalise these externalities.

The findings

A net-zero carbon future by 2050 may seem challenging, however the analysis indicates that such pathway is still feasible. But it requires a massive ramp-up of efforts. The transition trajectory is currently being elaborated further, including regional details and sector specific strategies, as well as socioeconomic impacts and financing strategies. The findings will be released later this year.

IRENA’s Outlook shows that we need the highest levels of commitment and ambition, paired with strong international collaboration to enable a meaningful and rapid shift to a 1.5-degree course. 2021 is a pivotal year for energy. The United Nations Secretary General will convene a high-level dialogue on Energy in September, and IRENA is honoured to co-lead the energy transition theme. Along with COP26 later in the year, these are important milestones for collective action.

About the authors

Dolf Gielen

As director of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) Innovation and Technology Centre in Bonn since 2011, Dolf Gielen oversees the agency’s work on advising member countries on energy scenarios and planning, power sector transformation, cost and markets, technology status and innovation outlooks, and project development guidelines.

Before joining IRENA, Dolf Gielen worked for the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) and the International Energy Agency. He has a PhD from Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands.

Ricardo-Gorini

Ricardo Gorini is an economist (PUC-RJ) and holds an MBA in Finance (IBMEC-RJ). MSc. and DSc. in Energy from Energy Planning Program COPPE – (UFRJ-Brazil). Visiting Student at the Energy Institute – University of Sheffield, UK. He has published several articles. Previously he has worked in the financial market and mining sector, as well as advisor for energy policies and regulation in Brazil, including as the Director of Energy Economics and Environment Studies at Empresa de Pesquisa Energetica (EPE) – the Brazilian Energy Office in charge of the energy planning studies for the Brazilian government. He was also involved in the Brazilian NDC formulation and he coordinated the energy group of the Brazilian Climate Change Forum. He was the sherpa for Clean Energy Ministerial (CEM) and Mission Innovation (MI) before he joined IRENA, in 2018 as Senior Program Officer – REmap, responsible for the Renewable Energy roadmaps program at global, regional and country level. He is co-author of the IRENA global roadmap series including the latest World Energy Transitions Outlook 2050 (March 2021),

Gayathri Prakash - IRENA
Gayathri Prakash

Gayathri Prakash is an Associate Programme Officer at the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENAs) Innovation and Technology Centre in Bonn, Germany. She is part of the IRENA’s renewable energy roadmap (REmap) programme for more than 5 years. REmap focuses on global, regional and country energy system analysis and energy transformation roadmaps to the year 2050 and works in concert with over 70 countries to determine the potential of accelerating renewable energy, energy efficiency and other low-carbon technologies and their impacts on the energy system decarbonisation. She is one of the lead analyst and main author of IRENA’s annual flagship report – Global Renewables Outlook (GRO). Prior to working at IRENA, Gayathri worked as a research associate at the Fraunhofer Institute for Wind Energy Systems in Germany and as a graduate electrical engineer on power system design for oil and gas plants at the Petrofac Global services in India.


[1] The Planned Energy Scenario (PES) provides a perspective on energy system developments based on governments’ current energy plans and other planned targets and policies (as of 2019), including Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement.