If governments and companies want to move more quickly toward net-zero emissions, progress on early stage technologies needs to be accelerated, the head of the energy technology policy division at the International Energy Agency said during a July 22 webcast.
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In a recent report, Timur Gul said, the IEA presented a "faster innovation case" on how net-zero emissions could be achieved globally in 2050, "by assuming that technologies currently only in the laboratory or at the stage of small prototypes today are quickly made available for commercial investment."
While numerous countries, states and companies have set net-zero emissions goals for 2050, the question of just how to reach that goal within the next 30 years has come under increasing scrutiny.
The IEA's Special Report on Clean Energy Innovation, released earlier in July, said that in its faster innovation case, almost half of all the additional emissions reductions in 2050 "relative to current policy plans" would be from technologies that have not yet reached the market today.
To reach the 2050 goal, research and development of new technologies must be accelerated, with some of those new technologies reaching the field test stage within the next six years, Gul said during a webcast hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank.
Given the amount of development work that will be required, and the relatively short amount of time available to reach the 2050 goals, "there can be no failures, no hiccups," Gul said.
He noted that early-stage technologies provide about one-third of the emissions reductions in the IEA's faster innovation case.
"In practice, this case would require, for example, an average of two new hydrogen-based steel plants to begin operating every month between now and 2050. Currently, technology for these plants is only at the prototype stage," Gul quoted the IEA report as saying.
At the same time, 90 new bioenergy plants that capture and store their own carbon dioxide emissions would need to be built every year. "Today, there is only one large-scale facility in operation," Gul noted.
The pace of innovation in the coming decades will depend on the policies governments put in place today, Gul noted.
"A delay in demonstration projects and a slowdown in deployment of early adoption technologies following the Covid-19 crisis would require greater government efforts down the line, such as supporting new technologies for longer until they are competitive," he added.
The IEA report said, "as an example, the capital costs of key technologies like hydrogen electrolyzers could increase by up to 10% by 2030, making it harder to scale up production."
According to Jessika Trancik, associate professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Institute for Data, Systems and Society, funding for the effort to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 is "not currently enough," but, she said, what funding there is "can get us a good way toward zero."
"Its going to be hard, but not so hard that we can't address this challenge," she said.
Trancik said governments will play a "pivotal role" in addressing climate change, while companies will play a "critical role."
"With a little nudge from government, companies will move into action," she added.
She concurred with the IEA report that the development of solar panels is instructive.
She said the recent "very rapid decline" in the price of solar panels, which has helped spur global and US growth of solar capacity, started with government funding, but was fully embraced by corporate research and development efforts.
The IEA said it this way: "The remarkable 70-year history of almost continuous cost reductions for solar PV illustrates how governments can effect change. At different stages, the US, German, Chinese and other governments used R&D and market-pull policies, including targets and revenue guarantees, to encourage investments all along the value chain that supported innovation and economies of scale."
"The way in which lithium-ion batteries have developed has showed similar patterns," the IEA said.