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Outdated Coal Plant NiederauBem With Stop Sign
Outdated coal plant, NiederauBem, with stop sign. Credit: CHROMORANGE/Martin Schroeder/Alamy Stock Photo.
6 June 2017 8:01

IEA: World can reach ‘net zero’ emissions by 2060 to meet Paris climate goals

Simon Evans

Simon Evans

Simon Evans

Simon Evans

06.06.2017 | 8:01am
Global emissionsIEA: World can reach ‘net zero’ emissions by 2060 to meet Paris climate goals

Global emissions can be pushed down to “net zero” by 2060 to meet the climate goals of the Paris Agreement, says the International Energy Agency (IEA).

For the first time, the 29-member intergovernmental group’s annual Energy Technology Perspectives report, the 2017 edition published today, maps a “below 2C” scenario. This shows how to limit warming to around 1.75C above pre-industrial temperatures this century, roughly in line with Paris, which aims for “well below 2C” and preferably 1.5C.

The “well below 2C” aim is “technically feasible” and the past three years of stalled emissions favourable, the IEA says, but the gap compared to current action is “immense” and the challenge “formidable”.

Carbon Brief runs through what is needed to change course. This includes the early closure of most of the world’s coal fleet, incurring losses of up to $8.3tn by 2060.

Zero by 2060

In serious discussions about climate change, it is universally acknowledged that the world must become carbon neutral in order to stop global temperatures from increasing. This is because of the carbon budget, which caps the amount of greenhouse gases that can be added to the atmosphere for a given level of warming. The only real question is when net-zero emissions must be reached.

Apart from the choice of temperature limit – whether 1.5 or 2C above pre-industrial temperatures – the major uncertainties include how sensitive the earth is to increasing emissions and how effectively the natural world can continue to absorb much of the carbon we release each year.

The Paris Agreement sets a warming limit of “well below 2C” with an aspirational 1.5C target. It loosely follows the science of carbon budgets by calling for net zero emissions in “the second half of this century”.

These more ambitious targets set a challenge politically, but also for energy modellers such as the IEA, which had previously focused on the 2C goal. The IEA’s Energy Technology Perspectives 2017 is its first attempt to determine if the goals of Paris can be met.

Previously, the IEA had shown that current policies and climate pledges were insufficient, implying global temperatures reaching 2.7C in 2100 and still rising. That was before president Donald Trump began the process of tearing up the US contribution.

It had identified a “bridge” scenario that would bend the path of emissions towards 2C, as well as its more aspirational 2C path, which reaches net-zero emissions by 2100. But these still fell short of reaching the Paris targets.

In its new report, the IEA says:

“Technologies can make a decisive difference in achieving global climate goals while enhancing economic development and energy security. For the first time, [our] technology-rich modelling expands the time horizon to 2060 and reveals a possible although very challenging pathway to net-zero carbon emissions across the energy sector.”

The path to meeting this zero-by-2060 scenario is narrow and requires unprecedented action, the IEA says, though it does not rely on unforeseen breakthroughs in innovation. Its report emphasises the scale of the challenge:

“Deployment of clean energy technologies, inclusive of those currently available and in the innovation pipeline, is pushed to its maximum practical limits across all key sectors…This pathway implies that all available policy levers are activated throughout the outlook period [2014-2060] in every sector worldwide. This would require unprecedented policy action as well as effort and engagement from all stakeholders.”

Even so, its zero-by-2060 scenario would give only a 50-50 chance of keeping global temperature rise below 1.75C. This is within the bounds of the Paris goals, though the IEA says it is not trying to set the definition of the “well below 2C” target in the agreement.

Efficiency and renewables

Most of the emissions cuts in the IEA 2C and below-2C scenarios come from energy efficiency and renewables. To move from our current 2.7C path towards its 2C scenario, the IEA sees these two sectors providing 75% of the emissions reductions, with another 14% from carbon capture and storage (CCS), 6% from nuclear and 5% from fuel switching, for instance from coal to gas.

Shifting from the 2C path to its below-2C scenario would again put heavy emphasis on energy efficiency across transport, buildings and industry, to make 34% of the additional carbon savings. The importance of CCS would increase, making up 32% of extra effort, as the chart below shows..

Compared to the current path, efficiency and renewables would still play the largest role, as the chart below shows.

Cumulative emissions reductions to 2060, by source of savings. Source: IEA Energy Technology Perspectives 2017.

Cumulative emissions reductions to 2060, by source of savings. RTS is the IEA’s reference technology scenario, incorporating current policies and pledges. The 2DS and B2DS scenarios are for 2C and below 2C. Source: IEA Energy Technology Perspectives 2017.

As efficiency cuts demand and renewables scale up, fossil fuels’ share of the global energy mix falls from 82% in 2014 to 35% in 2060 under the 2C scenario, with coal use falling by 72%, oil by 45% and natural gas by 26% compared with 2014.

In the below-2C scenario these reductions are even more stark, with fossil fuels’ share of global energy falling to 26%, with coal use falling by 78%, oil by 64% and natural gas by 47%. Coal use without CCS is already largely eliminated in the 2C scenario, so the shift to below 2C disproportionately cuts into the space available for burning oil and gas.

Stranded fossils

In the power sector, low-carbon electricity meets 96% of global demand by 2060, even under the less ambitious 2C scenario. The IEA’s latest report goes further than ever before in spelling out the financial implications of this shift for coal and gas-fired power stations.

As the transition to zero-carbon accelerates, many fossil-fueled power stations will have to be closed before they reach the end of their natural life, the IEA says, causing lost earnings and creating “stranded assets” that are worth less than expected by investors.

Under its 2C scenario, some 1,520 gigawatts (GW) of capacity is closed early, of which 1,285GW is coal. For comparison, the combined fleets of China and the US today, the world’s top two countries for coal capacity, total 1,208GW. Adding Russia and Poland takes this to 1,285GW.

In its below-2C scenario, the IEA sees 1,715GW closing early, of which 1,330GW is coal. This is equivalent to the current fleets of China, the US, Japan, Germany and Poland. The plants closing early would lose $3.7tn in revenue to 2060 for the electricity they would otherwise have generated.

If action in the power sector is delayed, the extent of early closures and financial losses only increases, the IEA notes. If global power sector emissions remain flat until 2025, before falling more steeply later on, then losses could reach $8.3tn by 2060 and early retirements of coal and gas plants would climb to 2,350GW. The current global coal fleet is 1,965GW.

It’s worth noting that despite the significant role for CCS in its scenarios, the IEA says under a 2C or higher path: “Coal-fired power plants with CCS become too carbon intensive at a certain point, since 10-15% of their emissions are not captured.”

Unless these residual emissions can be eliminated through technical advance, then this issue will limit the potential to prevent stranded coal assets by adding CCS later on. That’s particularly true if climate ambition is pushed towards below 2C, or if action is delayed, the IEA report suggests.

Still, its scenarios include a key contribution from bioenergy with CCS (BECCS) to generate negative greenhouse gas emissions. The IEA includes significant levels of negative emissions, reaching nearly 5 gigatonnes of CO2 (GtCO2) per year in 2060, as the chart below shows.

Emissions to 2060 by sector in the 2C and below 2C scenarios. Source: IEA Energy Technology Perspectives 2017.

Emissions to 2060 by sector in the 2C and below 2C scenarios. Other transformation includes refineries, as well as biofuel or hydrogen production. For negative emissions, it could include biofuels linked to CCS or biogas used to produce hydrogen with CCS. Source: IEA Energy Technology Perspectives 2017.

Some experts argue this level of demand for biomass would be unsustainable, while others point to slow progress on CCS. Nevertheless, negative emissions from BECCS are “central” to the below-2C scenario developed by the IEA, where stubborn emissions from transport and industry are offset by negative emissions in the power and transformation sectors (for example, bioenergy-derived fuel production linked to CCS).


The broad outlines of what is needed to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement are well known: the world must reach net-zero emissions soon after 2050 to keep the rise in temperature to 2C or less. Yet the scale of the challenge is daunting and, as the IEA points out, most sectors are off track.

Part of its latest report is devoted to tracking the progress of clean energy, technology by technology, repeating a sobering reality check that it carries out each year. This year, the IEA says electric vehicles, energy storage, plus solar and wind are on track for a 2C scenario.

This compares poorly to the eight sectors that are not on track and the 15 sectors where more efforts are needed. While this picture appears fairly gloomy, it’s worth comparing to what the IEA said two years ago, when no sectors were on track, and last year, when only one was.

It’s also worth reiterating the IEA’s view that meeting the aims of Paris is technically feasible with existing technologies and those in development, without the need for breakthrough innovation. As ever, world leaders’ lack of political will stands in the way of meeting their stated climate goals.

Sharelines from this story
  • IEA: World can reach zero emissions by 2060 to meet Paris climate goals
  • Bob_Wallace

    “The plants closing early would lose $3.7tn in revenue to 2060 for the electricity they would otherwise have generated.”

    Someone needs to add in the avoided health costs which would be enjoyed by closing coal plants earlier.

    The US spends between $140 billion and $252 billion per year paying for the external health costs of coal.

    Coal-fired power stations cost the European Union up to €42.8 billion a year in health costs associated with coal-fired power stations.

    Add in Asia (think China!) and the world is probably spending more than half a trillion right now to subsidize the use of coal. $3.7 trillion gets paid back in short years.

    • Billhook

      Bob – good point. It appears fraudulent for the IEA to report gross earnings not acquired without mentioning the massively greater savings in global healthcare costs – let alone the avoided costs of resulting damages from climate destabilization.
      But just what is the balance within the IEA of corrupt support of the status quo versus plain incompetence is an open question – though incompetence at that level seems to me to be culpable negligence of its mandate to serve the global society.
      I’d guess that people high up the system are getting extremely worried about a massive financial crash as FF corporations’ value gets written down, and are starting to push PR lines to try to postpone that loss of value – hence the focus on the mirage of CCS.

      • Bob_Wallace

        The writing’s on the wall for anyone willing to read it. Fossil fuel’s days are limited. Coal is on the way out and we should have affordable long range EVs (selling for less than same-feature ICEVs) within five years which will largely kill oil.

        The fossil fuel industry is going to fight as hard as they can to maintain their revenue stream as long as possible. I assume the IEA (and possibly the EIA) are going to shade their reporting to support traditional energy sources.

        I don’t see a massive financial crash in our future. Some very specific pain for those heavily invested in fossil fuels, but an overall boost to the global economy. The price of electricity will fall. Travel will become cheaper. Health will improve. Products will become cheaper to manufacture (lower energy inputs).

        We’re watching the coal industry die in the US. Mines are going bankrupt and closing. Coal has dropped from a 54% market share to a 30% market share. Lots of coal plants have closed. Certainly coal workers and towns that lived off coal plants are hurt, but the overall market is setting new record highs every few days.

        The car industry is likely to take a severe blow. Not so much because of moving from petroleum to electricity, but because self-driving cars are likely to move us from personal ownership to “robotaxis” as the cost per mile should be a small fraction of what we now pay when driving our own cars.

        Because cars can serve several people per day (and allow for ‘spontaneous carpools”/ride sharing the number of cars needed could drop to a modest fraction of what it now is and we would have far too much vehicle manufacturing capacity. Several car manufacturers will fail.

        But, at the same time, we individuals will save a few thousand dollars per year by not owning a car and that money will be spent on goods, travel, etc. and keep the economy cooking along.

    • Scottar

      These studies were flawed and not properly vetted

      EPA Under Fire for Concealing Controversial Scientific Data, Silencing Skeptics

      For more than 15 years, the Environmental Protection Agency has resisted releasing data from 2 key studies to the general public and members of Congress. Government regulators used those studies to craft some of the most expensive environmental rules in U.S. history. When skeptics within the federal government questioned and challenged the integrity of the studies—the Harvard Six Cities Study and an American Cancer Society study known as ACS II, they were silenced and muzzled. That’s when the Republican staff on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee stepped in to shine light on the situation, revealing the scope of the scandal in in a report titled, “EPA’s Playbook Unveiled: A Story of Fraud, Deceit and Secret Science.”

      The Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee opposed from the start the move to regulate fine particulate matter. Members claimed there was no precedent or court order to establish these regulations, that research had not distinguished between dangers posed by PM 10 particles and those 25% of that size under PM 2.5, and that the PM 2.5 target was arbitrary and tied to no known science.

      All that may be true, but the EPA still won’t provide the underlying data to put the matter to rest. Vitter and his team say this is because the EPA can continue to overstate the benefits and understate the costs of federal regulations—just as Beale did in the 1990s. “This technique has been applied over the years and burdens the American people today, as up to 80% of the benefits associated with all federal regulations are attributed to supposed PM 2.5 reductions,” the report states.

      • Bob_Wallace

        “The Daily Signal is a conservative American news website founded in June 2014. The publication focuses on politics, culture, and other stories. It is published by The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.”

        In addition, your link says nothing about the studies I linked.

  • Billhook

    Simon – thanks for this report of the IEA’s current thinking. Three points warrant stringent critique in my view.

    First, the agency’s careless and unsupported assumption that CCS – meaning “CO2 Capture & Storage”, NOT “Carbon Capture & Storage” – can be applied to remove 14% of annual global emissions for a 2C outcome, and further to remove 32% of emissions for a 1.75C outcome.
    This notional option faces intractable problems on at least three fronts.

    – First, it lacks scalability, and thus practicality. 16% of current daily global CO2 output when liquefied by the normal 23 atm compression would fill 100m barrels each day – which is about the daily volume of oil handled by the entire infrastructure heritage of the global oil industry from the last 100 years. Who is going to build such immense new global infrastructure for only a 16% cut ? Let alone infrastructure on twice that scale for a 32% cut ? Taxpayers will rightly argue (and already are) that the immense funds required should go into accelerating renewables’ RD&D (particularly the ‘dispatchables’ such as Geothermal, Solar Thermal, Tidal Barrage, Offshore Wave, etc) to displace the need for this perverse tailpipe subsidy.
    – Second, it poses untenable security risks. Many pipelines to transport liquid CO2 from every major point source to the latest interrment sites would be run across every developed nation and most developing nations. Where they run uphill of villages, towns and cities (which are mostly built down in river valleys) they would pose an extreme hazard as terrorist targets – as any competent safety officer could confirm. A small Daesh team digging down to a pipe at night to place a small bomb would release the entire volume of CO2 between pumping stations which, being heavier than air, then flows downhill to envelope the sleeping population. Mass fatalities should be expected as death occurs within about two minutes and there would be little or no time for evacuation. So which governments are going to try to impose this hazard on their populations ?
    – Third, it offers no practical prospect of verifiability. For CO2CS to be adopted on a global scale it would have to be fully verifiable by impartial UN inspectors for it to be accredited at the UN as part of nations’ emissions control efforts. Inserting 5.75Gt CO2 /yr (16% of 36.0Gts output) deep into bedrock around the planet, with some sites under the sea, means that an immense effort of deep drilling and sampling would be required to get even the haziest of actual records of what volume of CO2 had been inserted. Add to this the recent finding that liquid CO2 can rapidly react to form solid minerals sealing the fractures and pores around a well, meaning that new wells would have to be drilled continuously to access fresh rock and new pipelines laid to serve them, and the chances of practical verification are near-zero. So which govts are going to invest the massive financial, political and technical capital required if the program offers no diplomatic value in the form of UN-accredited emissions control ?

    A second critique of the IEA’s study is that while it hypes the patently impractical CO2CS option, it apparently ignores the fact that Carbon Recovery in the form of actual Carbon Capture & Storage would need to sequester only ~27% of the gigatonnage of CO2CS for the same effect. (3.664T CO2 contain 1.0T of carbon). Moreover, it ignores the well-evidenced track record of at least 2,500yrs of successful carbon sequestration on a massive scale in the form of “Terra Preta” in the Brazilian Amazon. If Native Coppice Forestry is now grown on degraded lands and unused hill lands worldwide to provide feedstock to village-scale charcoal retorts, the product can then be ploughed in as part of farms’ normal cultivation, where it acts as both a permanent soil fertilizer and also as a soil-moisture regulator.

    With the 2012 joint study by WRI & WFN finding 1.6GHa.s globally available for native afforestation (without affecting farmland beyond minor benign programs of agro-forestry, woodlots, shelter-belts, etc) the Terra Preta option is evidently scalable up to at least 6.0GtC /yr if a fraction of farm biomass ‘wastes’ are also processed, which is about 22.0Gt CO2 /yr recovered from the atmosphere.

    In addition, Terra Preta is entirely and easily verifiable, with random sampling on the ground of farms’ soil-carbon levels, or possibly by satellite imaging during each regions’ ploughing season.

    Moreover, it not only poses no terrorism hazard but actually greatly improves rural employment and provides huge new habitat for exceptional levels of biodiversity, while in raising farm yields it offers the prospect of a partly self-funding means of achieving Carbon Recovery for Food Security.
    For the IEA to ignore this option – which has the potential to become the world’s largest industry by volume – seems negligent in the extreme.

    A third critique of the IEA study is of its admission that its two proposed programs would provide only a 50% chance of yielding their 2C and 1.75C targets. Assuming that IEA analysts and executives are not in the habit of putting their families onto aircraft with a 50% chance of crashing, it is plainly dishonest to publish a study based on such a wild risk. In practical terms it allows them to massively understate the level of action that is now urgently needed and fully justified to minimize risk, thereby promoting complacency and serving the continuation of the status quo policies of letting Climate Destabilization rip. With no mention of the ongoing acceleration of CO2 + CH4 + warming outputs from the eight Major Interactive Feedbacks – whose emissions are growing towards the point of fully offsetting all human efforts at emissions control – this study and its authors surely deserve to be pilloried for deeply culpable negligence.

    Lewis Cleverdon

  • Scottar

    There is no real proof that CO2 is the forcing agent claimed:

    Earth’s Atmospheric Gases (the theory)

    The “Greenhouse” effect is a reference to the ability of atmospheric gases to retain heat and thereby raise a planet’s surface temperature, which would otherwise fall to that of outer-space (≈0K). The ability of any gas to retain heat energy is defined by its ‘Specific Heat Capacity’. Specific heat capacity (cp) is measured in J/kg/K (btu/lb/R) and describes how much energy a unit mass of the substance will require for each degree (K or R) of change in temperature.

    If we know the mass of each gas in the earth’s atmosphere, we can calculate the amount of heat energy stored in that gas and therefore its contribution to the “Greenhouse” effect. The mass of each gas in the earth’s atmosphere was established from their pressures in the above Calculation Procedure; and by multiplying the specific heat capacity by its mass we can determine the heat energy stored in each gas.

    To conclude; because nitrogen is responsible for 79.52% of the atmosphere’s stored energy, a 1% change in its mass will significantly affect surface temperature. On the other hand; a significant increase (e.g. >1000%) in the mass of gases such as neon, carbon dioxide, helium, hydrogen that together constitute less than 0.039% of the atmosphere’s stored energy will have very little effect on the earth’s surface temperature.

    The above is just an excerpt, much more information is found on the website invalidating the claimed GHE forcing factor of CO2.

    • Bob_Wallace

      Holy moly, Batman.

      Our children isn’t learning….

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