The IEA’s Seven Key Pillars Of Decarbonization

Last week the International Energy Agency (IEA) released a new report detailing the steps that would be required to get the world to net‐zero carbon emissions (NZE) by 2050. The report is Net Zero by 2050: A Roadmap for the Global Energy Sector, and it can be downloaded here.

The part of the report that has gotten the most attention so far is the idea that development of new oil and gas fields must stop, and that no more coal plants can be built if NZE is to be achieved. IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol said: “If governments are serious about the climate crisis, there can be no new investments in oil, gas and coal, from now – from this year.”

I may dissect this challenge in a future article, but today I want to just highlight the seven pillars that the IEA identified for achieving the goal. These pillar are:

  1. Energy efficiency
  2. Behavioral changes
  3. Electrification
  4. Renewables
  5. Hydrogen and hydrogen‐based fuels
  6. Bioenergy
  7. Carbon capture and storage (CCS)

Here’s a high-level summary of what the IEA says about each pillar.

Energy efficiency

“Minimizing energy demand growth through improvements in energy efficiency makes a critical contribution in the NZE. Many efficiency measures in industry, buildings, appliances and transport can be put into effect and scaled up very quickly. As a result, energy efficiency measures are front‐loaded in the NZE, and they play their largest role in curbing energy demand and emissions in the period to 2030.”

Huge changes are needed in the transportation sector. Those can be accomplished by strict fuel-economy standards and global bans on internal combustion engines (ICEs) after 2035. This should increase the number of electric vehicles on the road from 1% today to 20% in 2030 and 60% in 2040, and it makes a major dent in the carbon emissions from the transportation sector.

Behavioral changes

“In the NZE, behavioral change refers to changes in ongoing or repeated behavior on the part of consumers which impact energy service demand or the energy intensity of an energy‐ related activity.”

There were three main types of behavioral change described in the NZE:

  1. Reducing excessive or wasteful energy use
  2. Transport mode switching
  3. Materials efficiency gains

One example they gave for reducing wasteful energy use is to increase the global plastics recycling rate from 17% in 2020 to 27% in 2030 and 54% by 2050.

In the transportation sector, they mention reducing motorway speed limits to 100 km/h (~62 miles per hour), as well as phasing out internal combustion engines.

They also mention the need to reduce excessive hot water temperatures in buildings. There is tremendous energy wasted keeping water heaters at higher temperatures than necessary.


“The direct use of low‐emissions electricity in place of fossil fuels is one of the most important drivers of emissions reductions in the NZE, accounting for around 20% of the total reduction achieved by 2050.”

The big takeaway here is that global electricity demand would more than double by 2050 as the world shifts to electric vehicles.

Electricity demand also rises steadily in buildings, but that is moderated by improved efficiency of appliances, cooling, lighting and building envelopes. Accompanying this is the widespread electrification of heating through the use of heat pumps.


“At a global level, renewable energy technologies are the key to reducing emissions from electricity supply.”

Renewables will need to do the heavy lifting as the world shifts to electricity as its primary energy source. Wind and solar generation will have to increase by more than eightfold by 2050. The renewable share in electricity generation rises from 29% (including hydropower) in 2020 to over 60% in 2030 and nearly 90% by 2050.

Hydrogen and hydrogen‐based fuels

“Global hydrogen use expands from less than 90 million metric tons (Mt) in 2020 to more than 200 Mt in 2030; the proportion of low‐carbon hydrogen rises from 10% in 2020 to 70% in 2030.”

The remaining portion of the auto fleet that isn’t fully electrified worldwide by 2050 is made up of hydrogen‐powered cars. Approximately half of the hydrogen produced globally in 2030 is via electrolysis, and the remainder is from coal and natural gas with carbon capture and sequestration.


“In 2050, electricity generation using bioenergy fuels reaches 3 300 terawatt-hours (TWh), or 5% of total generation. Bioenergy also provides around 50% of district heat production.”

Bioenergy use in the NZE scenario increases in several categories. Cement production is one of the world’s largest emitters of carbon dioxide, and by 2050 bioenergy would supply 30% of the energy for this industry. Paper production would receive 60% of its energy from bioenergy.

Household and village biogas digesters provide renewable energy and clean cooking for nearly 500 million households by 2030 in the NZE.

Liquid biofuel use grows to 2030 and then slows as transportation is electrified. The demand for liquid biofuels shifts to shipping and aviation after 2030.

Carbon capture and storage (CCS)

“Around 95% of total CO2 captured in 2050 is stored in permanent geological storage and 5% is used to provide synthetic fuels. Estimates of global geological storage capacity are considerably above what is necessary to store the cumulative CO2 captured and stored in the NZE.”

This is really the holy grail of the entire carbon dioxide problem. If we could capture what we emit — or remove CO2 from the atmosphere — then that would directly address the crux of the problem.

It’s a challenging problem though, because the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is still in the parts per million (PPM) range. That means you have to move a lot of air to get enough CO2 to make it worthwhile. Of course, plants do this naturally through photosynthesis, and CO2 capture through bioenergy is mentioned in addition to direct air capture.

This section once again highlights cement manufacture, saying carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS) “is particularly important for cement manufacturing.”


This new report represents a real step change for the IEA in addressing the seriousness of carbon emissions. Further, the IEA outlines concrete steps that need to be taken in order to get to net zero emissions.

The biggest challenge in achieving this vision is one that the report notes. To date, there has been a lot of rhetoric about addressing climate change, but actions don’t match the rhetoric. If this plan has any hope of succeeding, that gap between rhetoric and action will have to close.

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