Blind people are now circling the elephant that is the IEA Net Zero 2050 report, some finding a beautiful tree, others a slimy snake. The coverage of this report is an excellent example of ‘where you sit determines where you stand’ with climate change advocates hailing “IEA’s net zero emissions by 2050 maps the huge increase in global ambition,” while Upstream online, a paper devoted to petroleum exploration and development, instead says “IEA plans for net zero emissions by 2050 gets chilly response.”
The report is chock full of analysis and policy prescriptions, but what will no doubt catch the eye of many is the statement, “Beyond projects already committed as of 2021, there are no new oil and gas fields approved for development in our pathway….” Compared to the false claims that the Biden Administration wants to end meat consumption, this is beyond bold and will lead to many headlines (but minimal serious analysis).
Those calling for an end to fossil fuel investment and use will no doubt consider themselves vindicated by the apparent support for their position. But the IEA is actually describing what is necessary to achieve net zero GHG emissions by 2050, not predicting what will happen. If anything, it should bolster arguments that the net zero goals are seriously unrealistic.
Because what Net Zero 2050 would translate into is not just an energy transition, but an economic crash that will make the Titanic look like a rowboat leak. Pre-pandemic, there were 145,000 workers in the U.S. upstream oil industry, probably more than 2/3s in onshore development, who would immediately be laid off. (Offshore fields already under development would continue to progress, but as they are completed and no new ones initiated, the other 50,000 or more workers would lose their jobs.) Needless to say, global numbers are five to ten times that much and for every oil industry job lost, 3-5 jobs will be lost in supporting sectors, from steel to real estate to food trucks.
And of course, achieving the Net Zero 2050 goal depends on a phenomenal acceleration in spending on and deployment of renewable energy, mainly solar and wind power. Global investment in energy would have to more than double, from just over $2 trillion a year now to $5 trillion a year by 2030, but also, with a huge shift from upstream oil and gas to renewables, efficiency and infrastructure. Aside from questioning the extraordinary financial commitment, historical experience suggests that rapid spending increases typically result in factor inflation and substantial waste, which the IEA does not appear to address.
Further, the idea that electric vehicle (EV) sales will reach 60% of the market by 2030 seems to be a stretch that Elastigirl wouldn’t undertake. The figure below shows historical data and various scenarios for EV market share, and reaching the NZ2050 figure is clearly unrealistic. (More in a later column on EVs, but also see Lynch and Sandrea report peak oil demand on EPRINC.com.) Trying to ramp up battery production to meet such a market would make Tesla’s
And in this growing age of public involvement in project developments, accelerating investment in renewables to this degree is a steep hill to climb. With growing resistance to the massive need for land and subsidies for renewables, the likelihood that governments can accomplish such a transition on a 10-year time scale is nil. Placing transmission lines has gotten more difficult, opposition to large-scale renewable projects is meeting more local opposition (and thus delays), and social justice advocates are questioning the inequity of providing assistance to the wealthier parts of the population to help buy expensive ‘clean’ energy, to say nothing of concerns about forced labor and ‘blood minerals’ used in manufacture of many components, including lithium-ion batteries and solar panels.
Banning new oil and gas production (as a few small producers in Europe have done), will not reduce GHG emissions any more than efforts to clamp down on coca and poppy farming have cut into narcotics consumption. Instead, production will shift to countries that are less concerned about climate change, such as Russia, increasing their market share and economic and political power.
Is there a serious chance that many countries around the world will embrace the IEA roadmap and proposed policies? In the more than four decades of work on energy policy, I have heard innumerable demands for the end of fossil fuel subsidies (and price controls), including from the IEA. Yet, as the figure below shows, these subsidies have fallen only slightly, and much of that was due to the oil price crash of 2015, which reduced the losses from sales of oil products at below market rates. Ending these subsidies are not just the low-hanging fruit, they are the juiciest fruit pre-packed for easy consumption. (I know, ‘how many metaphors can he cram in one column?’ Answer: one more.)
Bad energy policies do tend to be the norm, and this roadmap should be considered seriously, but more as a cautionary tale than a likely outcome. Redirecting a large system such as the global energy industry has been likened to try to change the steering of an aircraft carrier; it must be done slowly, and requires a lot of effort. The IEA’s NetZero2050 roadmap is more like reversing the direction of an aircraft carrier and making it stand on its stern and tap dance to “Singing in the Rain.”