On 15 June 2022, the House of Lords is scheduled to debate the following question for short debate:

Baroness Sheehan (Liberal Democrats) to ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the report by the International Energy Agency ‘Net zero by 2050: A roadmap for the global energy sector, published in May 2021.

The UK government has described ‘net zero’ as a situation where:

Any emissions would be balanced by schemes to offset an equivalent amount of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, such as planting trees or using technology like carbon capture and storage.

1. Work by the International Energy Agency: 2021 roadmap

1.1 Why was the report published?

The International Energy Agency (IEA) is an autonomous intergovernmental organisation hosted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in Paris. It was created in 1974 as the main international forum for energy co-operation on a variety of issues. These included: security of supply; long-term policy; energy efficiency; sustainability; and international energy relations. It had a number of founding members, including the UK. Various other countries have since joined, with a recent ‘open door’ policy meaning that members now represent about 75 percent of global energy consumption. It now has 31 member countries and 10 “association countries”.

In May 2021, the IEA published its special report ‘Net zero by 2050: A roadmap for the global energy sector’. The study was requested by Alok Sharma, the UK’s president of the COP26 climate conference. It was designed to inform the high-level negotiations which took place at the COP26 summit in Glasgow in November 2021.

1.2 What did the report find?

The report argued that current climate commitments will not achieve net zero on schedule. It highlighted that in recent years many governments have made climate pledges, with this number continuing to grow. It found that while these pledges have made a major difference to the current trajectory for carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, those made to date would “fall well short” of what is needed to reach net zero emissions by 2050.

Despite this, the IEA has said that the world has a viable pathway to achieving net zero on schedule. However, it argued that it is narrow and requires an unprecedented transformation of how energy is produced, transported, and used globally.

Described as the world’s first comprehensive energy roadmap, the report set out how the world can transition to a net zero energy system by 2050 while:

  • ensuring stable and affordable energy supplies
  • providing universal energy access
  • enabling robust economic growth

1.3 What did the report recommend?

The report set out more than 400 milestones to guide the global journey to net zero by 2050. These included:

  • No investment in new fossil fuel supply projects, and no further final investment decisions for new unabated coal plants.
  • By 2035, no sales of new internal combustion engine passenger cars.
  • By 2040, the electricity sector has reached net-zero emissions.

Focusing on the near term, the report said that the immediate and massive deployment of all available clean and efficient energy technologies is needed, combined with a major push to accelerate innovation. This would see solar and wind power increased alongside a worldwide drive to increase energy efficiency.

It also highlighted new technologies needed going forward. Most of the global reductions expected up until 2030 come from technologies readily available today. However, in 2050, almost half of the planned reductions come from technologies that are currently only at the demonstration or prototype phase. The IEA has therefore called for governments to quickly increase and reprioritise their spending on research and development. It suggested progress in the areas of advanced batteries, electrolysers for hydrogen and direct air capture and storage as those that could have the most impact. It also said that the provision of electricity to around 785 million people who currently have no access and clean cooking solutions to the 2.6bn who lack them are integral to the roadmap.

1.4 What other issues did the report raise?

The report examined key uncertainties along the path to reaching net zero. These included the role of bioenergy, carbon capture, and behavioural changes, which the report argued are the areas which involve a high degree of uncertainty but are critical to achieving net zero emissions by 2050.

It also said that longstanding energy security challenges would remain while the role of oil and gas reduces, and that new challenges would emerge. For example, challenges that could result from the increasing importance of electricity include the variability of supply from renewables and cybersecurity risks. The increasing dependence on critical minerals, which are key for clean energy technologies and infrastructure, also presents risks.

In addition, the report noted that a transition of the scale and speed required would need the support of citizens whose lives will be affected in multiple ways. By 2050, the report said that the energy world would need to look completely different, with global energy demand lower despite the global population and economy being larger.

COP26 President Alok Sharma welcomed the IEA’s report and noted the progress needed on clean technologies in the coming decade. He also highlighted the importance the study placed on international cooperation:

I am encouraged that it underlines the great value of international collaboration, without which the transition to global net zero could be delayed by decades. Our first goal for the UK as COP26 presidency is to put the world on a path to driving down emissions, until they reach net zero by the middle of this century.

2. UK government policy

2.1 Net zero target

The Climate Change Act 2008 provides the framework for the UK’s climate change policy. The 2008 act initially committed the UK to an 80% reduction of greenhouse gases by 2050, compared to 1990 levels. In 2019, it was amended by the Climate Change Act 2008 (Target Amendment Order) 2019 to increase the UK’s commitment to a 100% reduction in emissions by 2050. The Committee on Climate Change, an independent statutory body established under the 2008 act, recommended this target. The change made the UK the first major economy in the world to adopt a legally binding target to reduce emissions to net zero by 2050.

2.2 The net zero strategy and other work

Commenting on the IEA’s roadmap in June 2021, the then minister of state for energy, clean growth and climate change, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, said that it “shared many of the priorities” the government had committed to through its COP26 presidency and other work. She specifically highlighted the government’s energy white paper, its ten point plan for a green industrial revolution and its planned net zero strategy. These are briefly summarised below:

  • ‘The ten point plan for a green industrial revolution’. Published in November 2020, the ten point plan for a green industrial revolution set out the government’s approach to recovering from the Covid-19 pandemic while supporting green jobs and accelerating the UK’s path to net zero. It focused on: advancing offshore wind; driving the growth of low carbon hydrogen; delivering new and advanced nuclear power; accelerating the shift to zero emission vehicles; green public transport, cycling and walking; jet zero and green ships; greener buildings; investing in carbon capture, usage and storage; protecting our natural environment; and green finance and innovation.
  • ‘Energy white paper: Powering our net zero future’. The government released its energy white paper in December 2020. The government said it built on the ten point plan and outlined how the UK will clean up its energy system and reach net zero emissions by 2050. Changes detailed in the paper included reducing emissions by shifting from gas to electricity to heat homes and by better insulating buildings. It also said that sales of petrol and diesel cars and vans would end and that work to capture carbon emissions from power generation and industry would begin. Overall, the white paper said it would put in place a strategy for the wider energy system that would: transform energy; support a green recovery; and create a fair deal for consumers.
  • ‘Net zero strategy: Build back greener’. In October 2021, the UK government published its net zero strategy. The strategy set out the government’s policies and proposals for decarbonising all sectors of the UK economy to meet its net zero target by 2050. The government has said that the strategy further builds on the ten point plan and is a long-term strategy for a transition over the next three decades. Many of the policies included in the strategy are scheduled to be phased in over the next decade or longer.

The Treasury also published its net zero review final report in October 2021, which used existing data to explore key issues as the UK looks to decarbonise. The Treasury explained that the review was not a cost-benefit analysis but a “first step in understanding trade-offs over a 30-year economic transition”. The review considered the potential exposure of businesses and households to the net zero transition and highlighted factors that policymakers should take into account to make the most of opportunities while supporting households. The review argued that overall a successful and orderly transition could realise more benefits—such as improved resource efficiency for businesses, lower household costs and wider health co-benefits—than an economy based on fossil fuel consumption.

In addition, in March 2021, the government set out its north sea transition deal. It described the deal as:

An ambitious plan for how the UK’s offshore oil and gas sector and the government will work together to deliver the skills, innovation and new infrastructure required to meet stretching greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets.

One year on from the deal in March 2022, the government published a report highlighting the progress made to date across a number of areas, including:

  • supply decarbonisation
  • developing carbon capture, utilisation (CCUS) and hydrogen
  • transforming the supply chain
  • aligning cross-sector energy training and standards to facilitate workforce mobility

3. Impact of the war in Ukraine

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has led to a renewed focus on its role in the global energy market. The IEA has described Russia as a “major player”, stating that it is one of the world’s top three crude producers and the second-largest producer of natural gas. It has also said that Europe is reliant on Russia for its energy. For example, in 2021, the EU imported 155bn cubic metres of natural gas from Russia, accounting for close to 40 percent of its total gas consumption.

However, Russia is also heavily reliant on the revenues it earns from the sale of oil and natural gas; in 2021, they made up 45 percent of its federal budget. As a result, there have been widespread calls for countries to stop buying energy from Russia and therefore reduce funding for the war. In reaction, some countries have proposed plans to reduce their reliance. For example, the EU has recently agreed to impose a ban on Russian oil arriving by sea—around two-thirds of imports—by the end of the year. The UK has also committed to phasing out Russian oil by the end of 2022.

The war has also prompted discussion about how it will affect efforts to reach the net zero target. Mark Nicholls, a contributing editor at Energy Monitor, has summed up some of the debate about whether the war will encourage the push towards net zero or delay it. He argued that, in theory, high fossil energy prices help support the financial attractiveness of clean energy generation, particularly in the long term. However, in the near term, he said that high gas prices are benefitting coal-fired power generation and making it challenging to find the cash to invest in cleaner alternatives. He also argued that high energy prices help those who argue that the cost of the net zero transition is an additional and unnecessary burden to households who are already struggling to pay their energy bills.

In reaction to the war and the energy security issue, the UN’s climate envoy, Mark Carney, has warned against deferring emission reduction targets. He argued that governments cannot afford to derail climate progress, despite the impact the conflict is having on global energy supplies and the cost of living. He acknowledged that efforts to find alternatives to Russian oil were resulting in higher emissions in the near term. However, he said this should not lead to countries putting side their climate goals as “the climate doesn’t care why emissions happen” and that higher emissions now means that more radical action will be needed later. However, there have been calls for the focus on climate action to be set aside. A group of Conservative politicians, the net zero scrutiny group, has called for cuts to green taxes and an increase in fossil fuel production to counter the cost of living crisis.

The government’s energy security strategy, published in April 2022, set out its plans for dealing with the current issues concerning supply and prices. It said the objectives of the strategy were to reduce the UK’s consumption of fossil fuels and increase domestic UK energy production. The strategy included a commitment to increase low-carbon hydrogen production. The government also said it would seek to increase the use of nuclear energy to meet a quarter of the UK’s electricity demand by 2050.

4. Read more

Cover image by Matthias Marx on Unsplash.