7 Charts on the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of the Energy Transition
Here’s where things stand now, according to the International Energy Agency.
Two years ago, the International Energy Agency sent shockwaves through the climate community when it published its first net-zero by 2050 roadmap. The report made a declaration that proved to be a sort of energy transition Rorschach test: “There is no need for investment in new fossil fuel supply in our net-zero pathway,” it said.
Climate advocates quickly began talking up the fact that the authoritative IEA was calling for an end to fossil fuels. But from another perspective, the statement highlighted the scale of the challenge ahead. In order to forego more fossil fuel supplies, there would have to be an unprecedented deployment of clean energy, efficiency improvements, behavioral changes, and technological advancements. The world was not on track for that net-zero pathway in 2021. And while a lot has changed in two years — much of it in the right direction — that’s still the case.
On Tuesday, the IEA published an update to its blueprint for hitting net-zero and halting warming by mid-century. The research group insists that it’s still possible to limit temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius this century, with a brief period where temperatures tip above that benchmark, but “the path has narrowed.”
Here are seven charts from the report that show the good, the bad, and the ugly of where we’re at and where we need to be.
One of the most hopeful takeaways from the report is that two key clean technologies — solar installations and electric vehicle adoptions — are already being deployed at a pace in line with achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. Not only are they on track today, but companies’ plans to expand their manufacturing capacity for EVs and solar would enable us to deploy about 30% more than the IEA’s roadmap requires.
This is huge, since those two technologies alone are responsible for about 30% of emission reductions between now and 2030 in the roadmap.
The report also highlights rapid growth in two other key, mass-manufactured technologies — heat pumps and energy storage for the electric grid.
Though solar has seen steady growth since 2015, there was a significant uptick between 2021 and 2022, when about a third of all installations took place. Similarly, about 60% of total electric car sales took place in that one-year period.
Much of this growth has taken place in advanced economies like the European Union and the United States, but the vast majority has taken place in China. In 2022, the nation was responsible for more than 40% of the global deployment of solar panels and nearly 60% of electric vehicles.
Another chart from the report that I find particularly hopeful shows how much less energy the world will need, overall, if we electrify everything that we possibly can. That’s because solutions like electric vehicles and heat pumps are inherently much more efficient than the fossil fuel-burning boilers and engines they replace. The world would use 15 exajoules less energy annually simply by switching fully to electric cars and heat pumps alone. That’s about the amount that the entire nation of Japan uses in a year.
Despite significant clean energy progress in the last two years, emissions remain “stubbornly high,” the IEA notes. Global carbon emissions reached a new high of 37 gigatons in 2022, with most of that growth driven by China and other developing economies.
The report also warns that current planned investments in fossil fuel supplies, power plants, and other end uses are estimated to be about $3.6 trillion higher by 2035 than they are in the net-zero roadmap.
Getting on track for net-zero already requires shutting many existing fossil fuel plants before they are fully paid off. The challenge will only get harder if we build more. “Further delaying the hard choices necessary to reach global net zero emissions by 2050 would make the problems substantially worse, and much harder to solve,” the report says.
In 2022, scientists estimated that the world’s carbon “budget,” the amount we could emit before surpassing 1.5 degrees C, was around 380 gigatons of CO2. The figure below shows we might emit nearly double that amount by 2050 if we don’t make the tough decision to shut down existing fossil fuel power plants early. This is especially an issue that China will need to confront, the report notes, as it has a large fleet of young coal plants and accounts for nearly half of the emissions in the chart below.
One of the gravest charts in the report pertains to a topic that doesn’t get enough daylight in western discussions of the energy transition. A tenth of the global population still lacks access to electricity, and a third use polluting open fires or stoves that threaten their health.
The electricity chart’s downward slope, which is due to major electrification efforts in India and Indonesia, shows it’s possible to turn this trend around. But access to electricity in Sub-Saharan Africa has decreased. Throughout the report, the IEA emphasizes that success in reaching net-zero hinges on stronger international cooperation and support for developing economies. The roadmap requires clean energy investment to increase sevenfold in developing economies other than China by 2030.
There has been a long-running debate among energy experts and climate advocates about how to improve energy access in the developing world. Should countries be allowed to exploit their fossil fuel reserves, the way wealthy countries have? Or should they “leap-frog” fossil fuels and go straight to renewables? The chart below, which shows the energy mix the IEA has modeled, has solar providing more than half of modern electricity access by 2030.
Okay, I cheated — there’s one more chart worthy of your time, and it doesn’t fall neatly within my good, bad, and ugly rubric. It’s about individual action.
The IEA’s net-zero roadmap illustrates just one potential pathway out of many to keeping climate change in check. It’s based on all kinds of assumptions about energy demand, policies, and costs. But it also makes assumptions about something that’s incredibly hard to model — human behavior.
The authors put about 1 gigaton of emissions mitigation into the hands of the people. I don’t want to put this entirely on you and me — policy support can go a long way to helping us make these changes. But if we don’t start flying less, driving less, and taking steps to make our buildings more efficient, this monumental project of unprecedented technological advancement and clean energy deployment will be much, much harder.