By Irina Slav
Earlier this month the International Energy Agency had yet another dire warning for those concerned about the welfare of the planet. Natural gas demand, the IEA said, was improving faster than earlier expected and this could throw the world off the agency’s Roadmap to Net Zero by 2050.
The gas demand rebound was the result of the recovery in economic activity, the agency acknowledged as well as noting the strong growth in this demand expected in the near future would be due to natural gas replacing more polluting fossil fuels such as coal and oil in the electricity generating sector, among others. Still, this was not good enough for the IEA’s net-zero scenario.
“The rebound in gas demand shows that the global economy is recovering from the shock of the pandemic and that gas is continuing to replace more emissions-intensive fuels,” said Keisuke Sadamori, director of energy markets and security at the IEA.
“But stronger policies need to be implemented to put global gas demand on a path in line with reaching net-zero emissions by 2050 while still fostering economic prosperity,” the official added, noting this involved using gas more efficiently and promoting “cleaner and low-carbon gases”.
Now, the IEA has taken its net-zero roadmap as the target to follow but it needs noting that not everyone agrees this target is realistic. Under that scenario, the IEA said exploration for new oil and gas production had to stop now, this year. Yet just weeks after the release, the agency called on OPEC+ to increase production as demand for oil rebounded faster and stronger than the agency had apparently expected.
The agency then went on to say in its net-zero roadmap that the world needs to add more hydropower capacity in order to reach its net-zero goals. Hydropower already provides more clean energy than solar and wind taken together and accounts for a sixth of global electricity generation but we need more, the IEA said last month.
Meanwhile, California is struggling to secure enough electricity supplies for this summer, not least because drought has reduced its hydropower resources significantly. China, on the other hand, recently put online two huge hydropower projects. That happened despite environmentalist opposition that such projects affect ecosystems adversely. Opposition is emerging against solar projects, too.
What does this all mean for the net-zero goals of governments and agencies such as the IEA? For starters, it means they have got their work cut out for them. Renewable energy capacity additions ran at record highs last year amid the pandemic but now these are slowing down because raw material shortages are causing prices to soar.
Meanwhile, demand for oil and gas alike is rising fast as people start traveling again. Airlines, which last year languished under the weight of the pandemic, are now scrambling to meet soaring demand for their services. And analysts are talking about oil reaching $90 or even $100 per barrel.
Now, it’s the analysts’ job to speculate on oil prices based on all the known factors that affect it at any given time. Right now, we have a combination of internal discord in OPEC between the UAE and Saudi Arabia that adds uncertainty about supply at a time of rising demand. Naturally, prices would be going up. Yet what the current demand and supply situation also suggests is that lofty net-zero goals would be harder to achieve than their authors might like.
Governments are already pushing for more EV sales, some are even banning them, and subsidizing new wind and solar power capacity while retiring coal power plants and, in Germany’s case, nuclear plants as well for reasons unrelated to emissions. Still, oil and gas demand remains strong and even coal demand is strengthening, including in Germany.
At the time of writing, Germany, a frontrunner in the net-zero transition, was generating most of its electricity from coal, according to electricityMap. The same was true for the end of June.
Great Britain, also an ambitious net-zero nation, was generating most of its electricity from natural gas. If these two need to rely so heavily on fossil fuels, then the IEA’s scenario for net-zero will be really challenging.
Efficiency is one way to overcome these challenges but efficiency gains, especially in mature technologies such as electricity generation take time. Encouraging gas producers to reduce their methane emissions—as a means of producing “cleaner gases”—is certainly a noble goal but this, too, will take time as well as investments that could push gas prices higher.
It is therefore easy to warn against rising fossil fuel consumption. It is much harder to suggest realistic alternatives to these fossil fuels that can compete with them on every indicator that matters, from cost to reliability of supply. Until such alternatives are developed, warnings of the sort the IEA is making are pretty much pointless.