A major acceleration in clean energy innovation is critically needed if companies and countries worldwide are to fulfill their pledges to bring their carbon emissions down to net zero, the International Energy Agency's (IEA) new report on Thursday showed.
The IEA's Special Report on Clean Energy Innovation, which analyzes the market readiness of more than 400 clean energy technologies, examined how quickly energy innovation would have to move forward to bring all parts of the economy – including challenging sectors like long-distance transport and heavy industry – to net-zero emissions by 2050 without drastic changes to people’s lives.
Fatih Birol, the IEA executive director warned that in the absence of much faster clean energy innovation, achieving net-zero goals in 2050 would be all but impossible.
"There is a stark disconnect today between the climate goals that governments and companies have set for themselves and the current state of affordable and reliable energy technologies that can realize these goals," Birol said.
He stated that this analysis shows that getting there would hinge on technologies that have not yet even reached the market today.
A significant part of the challenge comes from major sectors where there are currently few technologies available for reducing emissions to zero, such as shipping, trucking, aviation and heavy industries like steel, cement and chemicals, the report said.
Decarbonizing these sectors will largely require the development of new technologies that are not currently in commercial us, however, the innovation process that takes a product from the research lab to the mass market can be long, and success is not guaranteed, according to the report.
"It took decades for solar panels and batteries to reach the stage they are at now. Time is in even shorter supply now," it warned in the report.
- Five key innovation principles for governments
The first proposal is for governments to review the processes for selecting technology portfolios for public support to ensure they are rigorous, collective, flexible and aligned with local advantages.
Secondly, the IEA suggested governments use a range of tools from public research and development to market incentives to expand funding according to the different technologies.
The third suggestion is to look at the bigger picture with an eye on ensuring all components of the key value chains are advancing evenly towards the next market application.
The IEA also recommended that governments build enabling infrastructure by mobilizing private finance and work globally for regional success by cooperating to share best practices and resources to tackle urgent and global technology challenges.
- "Time to strengthen support"
The IEA advised that crucial clean energy solutions should be ready in time for the start of long-term investments in key industries. It said doing so would create huge markets for new technologies and avoid locking in vast amounts of emissions for decades to come.
"If key technologies become available by 2030 to take advantage of the next round of plant refurbishments in heavy industry, nearly 60 gigatonnes of carbon emissions could be avoided," it said in the report.
The IEA also urged for a further continued push on innovation to bring down costs and accelerate deployment for today's available technologies such as wind turbines, electric vehicles and storage.
Around three-quarters of the cumulative reductions in carbon emissions that would be needed to move the world onto a sustainable path would come from technologies that have not yet reached full maturity, the report said.
But the public and private sectors are currently falling short of delivering the innovation efforts to back up their net-zero ambitions while the COVID-19 crisis is threatening to further undermine projects around the world focused on developing vital new energy technologies.
"A recent IEA survey revealed that companies that are developing net zero emissions technologies consider it likely that their research and development budgets will be reduced, a clear sign of the damage that the COVID-19 crisis could do to clean energy innovation," Birol noted pointing out that now is not the time to weaken support for this essential work.
"If anything, it is time to strengthen it," he urged.
By Nuran Erkul Kaya and Gulsen Cagatay