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April 6, 2021

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Set out a global decarbonization road map

Our climate challenge is an energy challenge. But solving our energy challenge requires action that goes well beyond power generation.

Solar and wind have revolutionized our energy system. But with the power sector currently supplying only 20 percent of our energy, simply producing more green electricity cannot get us to net-zero carbon dioxide emissions by mid-century.

Nor will converting renewable power into large-scale supplies of green hydrogen be a silver bullet. Our ships, planes, and trains are not configured for it, and the economic incentives are not yet moving in the right direction.

Our energy challenge is also an energy demand problem. Achieving our collective climate ambitions requires rapid and deep transitions in each of the sectors that contribute to global energy demand, including not only power, but also transport, manufacturing, steel, and chemicals.

Getting these transitions on track at the required pace implies the complete transformation of our energy infrastructure.

To that end, three priorities in particular will be crucial.

First, we need to accelerate the pace of innovation. Recent analysis by the International Energy Agency shows that nearly half of the emission reductions needed to reach net zero by 2050 may have to come from technologies that aren’t yet on the market.

Clean-energy technologies such as solar panels, wind turbines, electric cars, light-emitting diodes, and lithium-ion batteries have made it possible for us to envision a net-zero world in the coming decades.

But we need giant leaps in innovation in other clean technologies — some of which are still in the lab — to get us all the way there. This is especially urgent in sectors like steel, cement, chemicals, shipping, and aviation, where emissions are the hardest to reduce and technological solutions are lagging.

The second priority is closer collaboration between government and industry. The private sector is an unparalleled engine of change.

It’s where the lion’s share of inventors, entrepreneurs, and investors are, and their contributions will be crucial if the world is to devise and deploy green technologies at the rate required.

At the same time, government action is essential to unleash the full power of business. Left to their own devices, markets won’t bring about the rapid transformation of our global energy system that we need.

In many sectors, businesses need strong government policy to enable lower-carbon technologies to flourish.

They need government to support early innovation in new technologies, create niche markets that allow them to develop, and then implement effective policies that enable their diffusion — sector by sector.

International coordination

Lastly, we need greatly enhanced international coordination. In a global system centered on national action, orchestrating the kind of systemic change required in many energy-consuming sectors is a major challenge.

National approaches can be highly effective in some areas, especially where governments can pursue decisive policies without hurting domestic producers in sectors like power. But a rigid national approach works less well in internationally traded industries, and particularly in harder-to-abate sectors.

Here, coordinated cross-border action is essential to drive the rapid adoption of new technologies.

Multilateral institutions have a critical role to play in all these areas.

The IEA facilitates collaboration on key energy transition technologies — an effort that involves more than 6,000 experts worldwide, representing nearly 300 public and private organizations located in more than 50 countries, including many from IEA association countries such as China, India, and Brazil.

But with an ever-growing consensus on the need to move toward net-zero emissions, we can and should do more.

Later this year, the IEA will set out the first comprehensive road map for the global energy sector, spanning power, transport, industry, and buildings — each of which we need to transform in order to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.

By setting out exactly what is needed in each sector, and when, the plan will enable governments and firms to benchmark their progress, making it clear where greater focus is needed.

Katherine Dixon is chief counselor of Transitions and Partnerships at the International Energy Agency. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2021.


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