Need to go beyond recommendations in the IEA report Net Zero by 2050

Shankar Sharma, Power & Climate Policy Analyst from Vijayanagar, Sagara, Karnataka, writes to Dr Fatih Birol, Executive Director, International Energy Agency, Paris:

I would like to congratulate you and your team for the release of the IEA report “Net Zero by 2050”.   Such concrete and unambiguous recommendations will be of great help in combating the high level of global GHG emissions.  While appreciating all the efforts behind this detailed report I would like to bring to your kind notice a few associated issues.

A. IEA can do a lot more: To start with, it is not difficult for environmentalists from around the world to endorse the view of Oil Change International (OCI), which says, among other things:  The IEA finally embracing a 1.5°C-aligned pathway as “the energy future we all need” is a major milestone. But the IEA must do much more beyond today’s report to prove its climate credibility and commitment, particularly given the agency is positioning itself to play an advisory role at COP26.”
“For years, we’ve seen fossil fuel companies and governments justify their fossil fuel expansion plans – from the TransMountain tar sands pipeline expansion to Arctic oil drilling to the Adani coal mine – on the backs of scenarios from the International Energy Agency (IEA).  This was possible because, until today, the world’s most influential energy modeling agency had not produced a scenario actually aligned with the full ambition of the Paris Agreement goals.  Now, after years of pressure from climate advocates, investors, businesses, and diplomats, the IEA has finally released its first ever fully-fledged energy scenario aligned with the urgent goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (°C). As with past IEA modeling efforts, this new scenario needs some fixes (more on that below), and we’re still analyzing all of its implications. But one conclusion in particular stands out to us at Oil Change International (OCI).  This is huge. An agency that has consistently boosted new oil and gas development in its flagship annual World Energy Outlook (WEO) is now backing up the global call to stop the expansion of fossil fuel extraction.” 
“To guide policies and investments towards a future fully aligned with the Paris goals, the IEA must go beyond developing a 1.5°C-aligned scenario and position it at the heart of the WEO. It is the WEO that decision makers look to year after year to guide trillions in public and private capital, and which the IEA itself calls the “gold standard of energy analysis.”

B.  Environmental & and social focus: Whereas it is difficult to quantify the overall loss/damage to the global welfare because of the questionable justification given by the fossil fuel companies and governments to invest massively in fossil fuel expansion plans on the basis of IEA’s annual WEOs (World Energy Outlook), it is not difficult to suggest that these losses/damages could have been minimised if IEA were to keep the environmental & and social issues at the centre of its focus.  But sadly, the so-called economic growth and GDP seem to have been at the centre of focus for these annual WEOs.  It is earnestly hoped that every one of the future reports of IEA will have the environmental & and social issues at the centre of its focus. 

C. Efficiency: While it is great to notice that an emphasis is placed on the energy efficiency in the latest report, the term efficiency is likely to be construed by many countries and officials as efficiency of the technology at a higher level; say, as referred to the super/ultra-critical boiler technology for coal power plants. But in the overall context of the energy sector, the term efficiency must refer to efficiency at all levels of the processes/ stages in the energy cycle: starting from the mining/ extraction of minerals, processing or transformation of minerals to the end use form of electricity/ energy, transmission/ transportation, distribution and utilisation in end use applications.  This particular aspect of the term efficiency must be emphasised again and again, because the overall efficiency of the energy sector at various segments/ levels, especially in the developing countries is very low. Improving such efficiency at all levels/ segments of the energy sector to the level of global best practices alone can reduce the effective demand for energy/ electricity by a considerable extent.  For example, whereas the electricity transmission sector efficiency (at high, EHV and Ultra High voltages) in India can be said to be good and comparable to the global best practice, the efficiency at the distribution and utilisation levels can be said to be one of the lowest. The efficiency of the coal power plants in India also has left a lot to be desired. All these inefficiencies have meant that the effective demand for electricity on the grid is estimated to be about 40% less than what it is projected now. 
A universal best practice target of about 5% T&D loss (transmission & distribution of electricity losses) at individual systems level should be advocated/ stipulated in order to minimise the effective demand on the grid.

D. Demand Side Management and energy conservation: Whereas, the efficiency improvement measures will reduce the energy consumption at the level of an end use application/ appliance, the same may not really translate in the reduction of energy demand at a system level, unless the number of such applications/ appliances are also minimised/ optimised.  For example: an LED lamp can minimise the energy consumption at the appliance level in a residential/ commercial dwelling/ street lights; but if the number of such LED lamps are not kept at the minimum required for a given situation/ purpose, the energy consumption at the system level will not come down appreciably, or may remain same as it was with an incandescent lamp.  
The effective demand at the integrated grid level or a system level can be brought down considerably through many ways. A diligent analysis at individual application level can throw up enormous potential. One such area is that of streetlighting, public lighting, commercial and decorative lighting. In most of such applications, especially in the urban areas, the actual illumination is much higher than that is needed for the purpose. So much so that such unwanted illumination has given rise to a serious problem known as “light pollution”, which is impacting the nocturnal creatures such as avian species. In addition, this phenomenon has also affected the sleep pattern of many people. Through a diligent application of the principles of ‘illumination engineering’ the electrical energy of these applications can be reduced considerably (in many cases by as much as 50%). A substantial number of such illumination fixtures can be redesigned to be switched off during the late-night hours, or when the need for illumination is minimal.
In many of the developing countries, it is often seen that remote applications (such as few houses in a remote area or within a forest) are supplied grid electricity by extending low voltage power lines for a number of miles/kM. Such a practice results in considerable energy losses while also aggravating the low quality of supply. Low electricity needs of such remote locations can be satisfactorily met by installing local electricity sources such as solar PV panels or small size wind turbines or bio-mass units and backed up by suitable size energy storage batteries.
There are very many ways/ examples to harness such an enormous potential to reduce the effective demand on the integrated grid or at the system level, without having to compromise on the larger welfare objective. They include doing away with horizontal conveyor belts for passenger in airports; reducing the carrying capacity of lifts or doing away of lifts in smaller buildings; doing away the concept of 24-hour shopping malls and night time sports, where feasible; diligently reviewing the concept of encouraging/ subsidising the travel/ tours to perpetually grow as an industry to minimise such travels by air or by trains; reducing the need for air conditioning by massively increasing the greenery in residential areas; serious introspection on the number of air ports, which are mushrooming all over the world; minimising the luxury travels/tours; encouraging more and more people to utilise the work-from-home option etc.

E. Keeping a check on global energy demand: Whereas the early transformation to 100% renewable energy (RE) sources has become essential, it is also critical to minimise global energy demand because the deployment of even such RE sources to the extent of 100% itself has certain ecological footprint (even though less than that of fossil fuels), which at the global scale will not be inconsiderable. Unless the total number of such individual RE sources/ appliances is kept at the minimum, and unless their overall ecological footprint is not managed adequately, the 100% RE scenario also will pose very serious problems at the global scale; may be of different kind. Hence, making all out efforts to minimise the global energy demand is critical even with such an energy transition to RE base scenario.
Whereas, the focus w.r.t the RE sources so far has been to increase rapidly the total RE capacity through very large size solar power parks and wind power parks in the name of economy of size, the ecological foot print of such large capacity in one location is rarely, if ever, has been discussed.
But sadly, the focus at the global level has been restricted only to technological changes, but the global demand for energy has been growing alarmingly. Even a 100% RE scenario cannot be a long-term solution for our energy needs, unless the global society makes honest efforts to keep the total energy demand at a manageable/ sustainable level.

F. Caring for biodiversity: Whereas the IEA report has admirably advocated for a net zero emission scenario by 2050, adequate reference to trees, forests and biodiversity is hard to find a mention. Whereas, the diversion of large chunks of land to solar power parks (very often either agricultural lands or forest lands) and dedicated power transmission lines (of usage for only 8-10 hours in a day) are the major concerns in case of solar parks, the infrastructure related concerns within the ocean, and serious obstruction to flight path of birds are the concerns in case of off-shore wind turbines and on-shore wind turbines. Land is a scarce resource in most of the developing countries, such as India, and any large-scale diversion of lands will lead to forced displacement of poor people, and to the destruction of green cover.
Hence, there is also a critical need to maximise the usage of the roof top areas to set up SPVs, wide-spread usage of small size wind turbines, community-based bioenergy units, micro-mini hydro turbines, mini-micro and smart grids to minimise the social and environmental impacts. Such distributed RE sources also will enable energy justice for vulnerable sections of the society.
The enormous number of solar PV modules, wind turbines, batteries, bio-energy units, geo-thermal units, hydropower units, computers, control systems, communication systems, protection systems, energy meters, iron, steel, copper and aluminium, rare earth metals, plastics, chemicals, glass, associated transmission and distribution lines etc. required for a 100% RE scenario with a business-as-usual approach by 2050 will be so much overwhelming that we may end up being the losers anyway. The energy foot print associated with the manufacture and transport of these components and the management of waste, pollutants, and contaminants associated with these will also pose enormous challenges. Because, the global energy demand by 2050 would have increased by many folds that what it is today; even if we allow continued energy demand growth rate of only 2-3% CAGR between now and 2050.  Hence, the need to keep the global energy demand to a manageable/ sustainable level should become obvious.
Whereas, there can be no doubts about the extreme care needed to ensure a healthy biodiversity, the following scholarly articles can drive home the point in the context of our insatiable demand for materials and energy.

Keeping all these and other associated issues in proper perspective, it can be unequivocally stated that there is a dire need for the global communities to provide adequate focus on minimising the overall demand for materials and energy, while doing all that is feasible to protect and enhance the biodiversity. Moving towards net zero emission scenario by 2050 alone will not be able to provide a sustainable energy/ economic model. In this direction IEA can undertake many initiatives such as the ones mentioned below.
* Provide lot more emphasis to enhance/restore the global biodiversity, many elements of which have been seriously damaged by the past focus on increased usage of fossil fuels. IEA should consider harnessing its vast technical resources, international clout and global outlook to chart out specific energy pathway for each of its member countries and for association countries, such as India.
* IEA should put all possible efforts to persuade each of the major GHG polluters to urgently start moving towards net zero emission goal by 2050.
* IEA should consider bringing out a compilation of various credible simulation exercises undertaken by other global agencies for such a net zero emission scenario by 2040/50 along with specific case studies, and the associated experiences from around the world, which can convince all such major polluters about the techno-economic feasibility of moving urgently towards net zero emission goal by 2050.
* IEA should provide adequate focus in advocating the concept of micro/mini grids well supported by locally harnessed RE sources and suitably designed IT, communication and protection systems to enable local communities to manage their own energy demand/supply, and to effectively participate in a concept of federation of micro/mini smart grids. Such a scenario will minimise the environmental damages, minimise overall costs to the society, and give necessary decision-making power to the locals, while creating good number of local employment opportunities.

References:

  1. Could humans really destroy all life on Earth?
    https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20210520-could-humans-really-destroy-all-life-on-earth
  2. UNEP report “Making Peace with Nature”
    https://www.unep.org/resources/making-peace-nature
  3. The Economics of Biodiversity: The Dasgupta Review
    https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/final-report-the-economics-of-biodiversity-the-dasgupta-review

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