Wolfgang Knorr: Where is the real danger? – The latest net zero scenario as presented by the International Energy Agency

An in-depth examination of the practicality of the highly acclaimed IEA report reveals many flaws

Wolfgang Knorr, Senior Research Scientist in Physical Geography and Ecosystem Science at Lund University is

This latest report from the International Energy Agency (IEA was widely hailed as a major breakthrough by scientists. The report presents an international strategy to reduce carbon dioxide emissions that’s in line with the Paris Agreement’s global climate goals. Is the report able to live up the hype?

Most widely covered news is the IEA’s support for the retirement of large portions of existing fossil fuel infrastructure. This is because it will be very hard to continue expanding fossil fuel infrastructure. The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which presented earlier scenarios, required either the use of inexact technologies to remove carbon from the atmosphere or an enormous drop in global energy consumption. These were widely considered unrealistic.

At a deeper level though, net zero isn’t the issue. The problem is how we avoid destabilizing society and life support systems that we depend upon. A third report by Melbourne’s Breakthrough Institute outlined that climate warming is most dangerous when there are no imaginations.

This motto was my guideline, and I decided to test the IEA’s report to find out if it lives up to its enthusiasm. Does net zero seem realistic, even though it is only a vaguely plausible scenario? Did the authors consider that there are always unexpected events? Is the report fair? Does it consider the importance of citizens buying in to the plan? Did they consider the principle of caution so the policy path is feasible?

This brings up a few questions that I will try to address in my article.

1 How realistic is it to see net zero in 2050?

The UN states that the global emission reduction of 7 percent during the pandemic must be maintained year after year, until 2030, to reduce the remaining half of the world’s carbon emissions. This is the first step towards complete decarbonisation.

Just a month earlier, the IEA released a press release predicting a record-breaking rebound in emissions this year. China was leading the charge. It seems completely unrealistic to think that a recovery after the pandemic would be the way to address the current climate crisis. Other than declarations, there is no evidence that net zero could be a feasible goal.

2 The report proposes a path to net zero in 2050. But is this actually compatible with the goal to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius?

It is often said that the report’s net-zero pathway aligns with the goal to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. The carbon budget (or allowed emissions) is used by it. It contains 500 billion tonnes (Gt), of CO2 from 2020 to 2050. The carbon budget is calculated to allow us to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. The pathway has a 50% chance of keeping our planet’s temperature below safe levels. This is equivalent to flipping two coins. The budget that provides us with a 2/3 chance would be more appropriate. It also considers the potential for feedbacks such as a decrease in the carbon being taken up on the ground by the natural ecosystems. The budget would be reduced to 240 Gt CO2 or six years’ worth of existing emissions.

Although 1.5 is considered an ideal scenario, the Paris Agreement’s goal is not strictly speaking at 1.5. It is merely ‘well below 2.’ We could increase our CO2 emissions by another 260 Gt if we take a chance and set a less ambitious goal, but with only two thirds of the probability. This would be the equivalent of the budget for the IEA scenario. The IPCC’s latest climate simulations suggest this scenario has high potential to bring warming well beyond 2degC. Based on a future path that is similar to the IEA’s net zero scenario , 3 of 12 climate models simulates achieve ‘well under 2degC’, while 6 come out at between 2and 2.4degC .

3 Is it correct that the report faces the fossil fuel industry?

This is what it appears at first glance. On closer examination, however, it becomes apparent that net zero follows the same narrative as the fossil fuel industry: Blame the user . It predicts only half of the developed fossil fuel resources will be used, but it limits demand for oil and gas. There are trillions of users, and only a small number of fossil fuel manufacturers. It would be easier for management to restrict the ability to create fossil fuels than it is to lower consumption via carbon pricing and direct regulation. Despite the success of lobbying, this was never seriously attempted. In the IEA scenario there’s a dramatic fall in fossil fuel prices to counter the suppressed market. This could create strong incentives to free riders to disregard international climate regulations and keep using fossil energy.

4: Has the report dealt with the issue of reliance upon unproven technologies in the future or the risks from biofuel expansion?

To some degree. However, there has been a significant increase in biomass production. This is a worrying development considering our terrible experience with bioenergy in power generation. Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), the concept of using biomass to generate energy, and then storing the CO2 underground for use in the generation of power, is still a significant role. However it could cause massive food or water shortages. The possibility of BECCS has been linked to intentionally delaying climate action.

5 How does the equity report look?

The plan foresees the end of traditional biomass, which is a significant source of energy beyond the formal economy. It was a type of energy that is currently used by nearly 2.3 billion people. It will be replaced with various types of “modern” bioenergy. This scenario would make a large portion of the world’s population unemployed and push them to a formal economy that uses money, even if they don’t have the resources. The provision is a Trojan horse. It introduces the notion of massive privatization. This idea reminds me of attempts to privatize water access.

Also, firewood can be collected sustainably and is carbon-neutral, unlike industrial energy production from whole trees or forests. This can reduce forest flammability and prevent wildfires. Rainer Janssen from WIP München pointed out that clean stoves are desirable for air quality reasons. This does not mean that people have to adopt’modern technology’ if they are not able to.

This report presents a one-sided perspective on technological innovation. It is accompanied by the assumption that the economy will keep working the way it is now. While this will result in large profits for companies that are involved with technological solutions, tax payers as well as people living low-income will need to pay the bill.

The scenario also foresees bioenergy crops growing on 70% of marginal land, or land used for livestock grazing. It does not address the question of where people who live off this land will go or what their futures look like. This silence allows to grab land for bioenergy.

6 Where is the report showing a lack of imagination?

My main problem with imagination is the assumption that governance structures can be found everywhere that will ensure that policies are implemented. This assumes there is a ‘political will to carry out these policies.

The Breakthrough Institute pointed out that , even at current temperatures, substantial sea level rise is possible. This could lead to widespread conflict and undermine any global governance systems.

Low demand means that fossil fuels will become very affordable, which could make it difficult to return to them in certain parts of the globe. This may also lead to the collapse of any political agreement for emission reduction. Ironic that a report which relies upon the neoclassical economic theory free utility maximizing agents to model demand and supply of fossil fuels assumes it’s possible to reduce demand, against all instincts for ‘utility, through the sheer force of regulation. This report fails to recognize that regulations can only be seen as social concepts, which require buy-in.

7 What’s the biggest shortcoming of ?

It even provides a scenario for the future thirty years in advance, even though politics tends to be governed by very short term electoral cycles. It is an important statement that doesn’t take into account many possible outcomes, but it sends the powerful message of “Don’t worry. Everything is under control.” The report shows only modest decreases in 2020-2050, which makes it more acceptable and reinforces the message that things are not so bad.

8 What’s its biggest advantage?

This has exposed the fact that fossil fuel companies are relying on unproven technologies to eliminate carbon from the atmosphere. These technology may prove to be dangerous, or even non-existent. representatives from the fossil fuel industry came out just a few days following the release of the report to argue for greater fossil fuel investments and complain about the insufficient BECCS and other unproven technologies included in the IEA scenario.

It is clear how hard it can be to think outside the box and break out from pre-established frameworks that dictate innovation must be technical and cannot be social. In a climate of increasing inequality and possibly destabilizing extreme weather events caused by climate change, the only innovation that will work is to create trust among different stakeholders.

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