Energy is at the heart of the solution to the climate challenge

By Dr Hoesung Lee, Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and Dr Fatih Birol, Executive Director of the International Energy Agency

The coronavirus pandemic has brought immense disruption to our world, destroying lives and livelihoods. But it is also reminding us that there are some challenges we cannot tackle alone.

Limiting the spread of the virus has required everyone to act collectively to make life safer for all of us. This holds true for the other great crisis the world faces – untamed levels of greenhouse gas emissions that are already bringing increasingly dangerous consequences.

Our climate challenge is a shared global challenge – and it is largely an energy challenge. Energy accounts for over two-thirds of global greenhouse gas emissions. This means energy must be at the heart of any solution.

There is no time to lose. Analysis by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) clearly shows us that global emissions need to be reduced to net-zero within the next few decades to avoid a dangerous increase in global temperatures. The coronavirus pandemic is resulting in a drop in emissions this year, but that came at an unacceptable human and economic cost – and there are already signs that emissions are rebounding as economies reopen.

The economic recovery following the 2008 global financial crisis brought with it the biggest jump in emissions in history. The world cannot afford to repeat that mistake. In order to reach our global climate and sustainable energy goals, we need to quickly put emissions into sharp structural decline. This requires a dramatic acceleration in the transitions to clean, sustainable energy that are already underway in many countries and industries.

The good news is we already have affordable, reliable technologies that can put the peak in global emissions behind us and start the drive down to net zero. The spectacular rise of renewable technologies like solar panels and wind turbines in recent years has shown us what is possible. Deployed quickly and on a major scale, the clean energy technologies we have at our disposal right now can bring about the kind of decline in energy-related emissions that would put the world on track for our longer-term climate goals.

The ambitious recovery plans that governments are pursuing to counter the damage caused by the pandemic offer a unique opportunity to drive much greater investment in key energy technologies such as more efficient vehicles and buildings, renewables and state-of-the art electricity grids. According to recent analysis by the International Energy Agency (IEA), together with the International Monetary Fund, a combination of policy actions and targeted investments over the next three years could bring about a sustainable recovery, boosting global economic growth, creating millions of jobs and making 2019 the definitive peak in global emissions.

Ensuring that this near-term, structural decline in emissions can take us all the way to net-zero in the coming decades presents a further challenge – and one that also needs urgent, ambitious action. Decarbonising entire economies means tackling sectors where emissions are especially difficult to reduce, such as shipping, trucks, aviation, heavy industries like steel, cement and chemicals, and agriculture. This will require the rapid development of many technologies that are still in their very early stages today – some of them are barely out of the laboratory. Recent IEA analysis has assessed the market readiness of 400 different technologies that will be needed, but finds that only about half of the additional emissions savings needed to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 are available to the market today.

The net-zero challenge calls for a step change in technology innovation in critical areas such as enhancing energy efficiency, making low-carbon electricity the main source for heating buildings and powering vehicles, capturing, storing and utilizing carbon dioxide before it escapes into the atmosphere, realising the potential of clean hydrogen across many industries, and massively expanding the use of sustainable bioenergy.

Today, overall investment in clean energy innovation is increasing, but only gradually – far too slowly to meet our challenges head on. Furthermore, the coronavirus pandemic is threatening to reduce funding for vital research and development efforts. Governments and the private sector both have critical roles to play in making sure investment in clean and sustainable energy innovation increases rather than declines at this pivotal moment.

As the world confronts our shared climate challenge, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the IEA are committed to providing evidence-based analysis. We cannot force the world’s decision-makers to make smart and sustainable choices, but we can make clear the consequences of the paths they choose and highlight how best to achieve their stated goals.

Both of our organizations are proof that by working together, governments, companies, investors and citizens from around the world can better understand the challenges we all face – and how to overcome them. Put simply, we need a simultaneous focus on both ambitious, near-term reductions in emissions and accelerating investment in the full range of clean and sustainable energy technologies necessary to get all the way to net zero.