In May the International Energy Agency (IEA) published its global net-zero roadmap to 2050. The IEA represents a conservative down-to-earth mentality, so in general no radical openings are expected of it. However, the new net-zero roadmap managed to be a surprise.
Coming from the IEA, it is comforting to hear that limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees is still a realistic goal. Although climate talk and action do not meet at the international level, the window to achieve the goal is still open. There is a range of technically sound, cost-effective and socially acceptable ways to achieve this – if we act quickly.
The IEA report shows once again that there is no silver bullet to carbon neutrality. Instead the transition to low-carbon and then carbon neutrality requires a fairly wide range of means. The societal debate on the matter is characterized by polarisation: it includes hypes, disappointments, and attempts to downplay or oppose one solution in order to gain more attention and better resources for another one. The arguments against certain solutions typically rely on the presumed premises of the counterparty: wind power opponents emphasize the associated noise, landscape nuisance and forest clear-cutting, while opposers of e-transport appeal to problems in sourcing battery chemicals.
“There is no silver bullet to carbon neutrality. Instead, the transition to low-carbon and then carbon neutrality requires a wide range of means.”
Not that long ago, electric heating was a symbol of wasteful energy use. Now that the CO2 emission factor for electricity production is diving, electric boilers and heat storages bring not only efficiency and savings but also more flexibility to the system for sudden drops and surges in electricity demand. Perhaps it would be time to recognize electricity use in large-scale electric heating as a good solution and lower the electricity tax rates.
Biofuels were a favourite topic for the progressive climate debater until the end of the first decade of the 21st century, when people became concerned about whether we should put food in a tank when there was a famine in Africa, and whether European rapeseed production would lead to deforestation in Brazil. It was concluded that electricity is the only acceptable driving force for cars and other traffic, and that manufacturing or purchasing of internal combustion engines should be prohibited.
However, disputes over technology choices should be seen in their local, regional and global contexts. Roadmaps to a low-emission future vary from country to country, and technology preferences made in rich countries should not dictate the steps for the rest of the world. Africa and Asia have large areas populated by hundreds of millions of people which rely on a weak electricity grid or have no electricity at all. The development of the charging infrastructure for e-mobility then appears in a different light, and the driving distances in these areas can quickly make a cottage trip to Kainuu seem like short distance trip. A vehicle running on bio gas or sustainably produced ethanol could still be used in many countries and environments in the 2030s.
“Societies need to rapidly adopt reasonable low-carbon energy solutions where opportunities arise for them. The development and implementation of good solutions should not be hindered by focusing only on finding the very best.”
The IEA’s range of instruments includes energy solutions disliked by many, such as bioenergy, nuclear power as well as carbon capture and storage. On the roadmap, modern bioenergy production would increase 2.5 times from its current level by 2050. However, the latest IEA roadmap as a whole is strongly focused on electricity, wind, solar, hydrogen and energy efficiency, even more than the majority of the scenarios underlying the analyses of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC scenarios place more emphasis on bioenergy and carbon capture than the IEA, which may not be widely understood in the energy debate.
Preventing climate change is an urgent priority. It requires societies to rapidly adopt reasonable low-carbon energy solutions where opportunities arise for them and not hinder their development by focusing idealistically and with a technology-centric approach on finding only the best solutions. Finland has acted sensibly in this manner. While new technologies, such as geothermal heat of hydrogen, have been developed, it has been ensured that energy policy is implemented in a stable manner with a long-term view. Our energy system is decentralized, the electricity market is dynamic and the policies guiding energy production and consumption are pragmatic. Therefore, we can still become the first industrialized country to reach carbon neutrality in 2035.
The author Sakari Oksanen is Korkia’s Senior Advisor and expert in the energy sector. Sakari is inspired by renewable energy, innovative technology and business as a catalyst for energy revolution. Most recently he served as Deputy Director-General of the International Renewable Energy Organization (IRENA). Prior to that, he worked for Sweco and Pöyry, for example as Managing Director of Pöyry Finland Oy as well as head of various Asian units.