Editor’s Note: Fatih Birol is executive director of the International Energy Agency. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
Innovation has helped humankind tackle some of its biggest challenges. Compasses made sea voyages safer, electric lightbulbs pushed back the limits of darkness, and vaccinations and antibiotics saved lives.
With global emissions on the rise, the world is facing an exceptional challenge that demands a giant leap in innovation. The energy sector, which produces the majority of greenhouse gases, is at the heart of the issue.
Right now, the picture isn’t good. Energy-related carbon emissions hit a high last year, making it increasingly hard for the world to meet international climate goals.
Turning this around will require major efforts across a wide range of sectors. First, we need to get emissions on a downward trend — and fast. That will require power companies to generate a lot more energy from renewables like wind and solar, and businesses and consumers to rapidly shift to more energy-efficient cars, trucks, buildings and industrial equipment. Smart policies focused on the near term are critical to ensure we start moving in a positive direction.
But more solar panels, wind turbines and electric cars aren’t enough to get emissions down to zero, which is what the United Kingdom and a growing number of other countries are aiming to do. Going carbon-neutral will demand significant innovations — and they will have to happen soon enough for the new technologies to become widely used in time to make a meaningful difference.
Governments must do their part by enacting energy policies that provide long-term certainty. Public-sector investment in research and development for clean energy technologies isn’t growing quickly enough. In the world’s major economies, it’s less than 0.1% of total government spending, according to the latest analysis by the International Energy Agency.
Companies can help by being less risk-averse and placing more small bets across a wider range of emerging energy technologies and sticking with them. They can also team up with governments in some areas to share the risks.
The IEA is tracking the annual progress of 45 key technologies and sectors in reducing their carbon footprint and air pollution. Our latest analysis found that only seven of them are on track to meet climate and other sustainability goals. The biggest laggards include fuel economy in cars and trucks, emissions from industrial processes, and advanced biofuels in transportation. To help focus efforts, we have identified more than 100 technology areas where more work and funding from governments and businesses are needed.
Many of those technologies can help with two of the overarching challenges we face: decarbonizing electricity generation, which today is the single largest source of emissions, and cleaning up major sectors like transportation and heavy industry. Innovation can help make a difference in several key areas.
Wind and solar power have made remarkable gains and now account for a growing share of global energy supply. But further technology advances are necessary for renewable energy sources to expand more quickly. That could include innovations such as wind farms that can float on the ocean, enabling us to capture the rich wind energy available over deep waters.
With advanced digital technology, energy grids are getting better at handling the challenges that come with relying more on renewable sources, such as a lack of wind or sun when large numbers of consumers start turning up their heating or air-conditioning. But we still need other sources of clean electricity, such as nuclear power, to help keep overall energy systems reliable and resilient.
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Nuclear power has been a vital source of low-carbon electricity for decades, reducing emissions by more than 60 billion tons over the past 50 years. Unlike renewables, it can easily send energy into the grid as and when required. But it’s now in danger of going into decline worldwide unless countries move to extend the lifetimes of existing plants and figure out affordable ways to build new ones. That could involve new advanced technologies like small modular reactors, which have the potential to avoid the cost and time overruns that have plagued the construction of some high-profile nuclear plants in recent years.
Clean electricity can’t reach all corners of the economy, though. Some important sectors, such as long-distance transportation and iron and steel, may require other approaches to tackle their emissions. Hydrogen produced from low-carbon sources could fill some of those gaps by fueling ships and long-haul trucks, and providing a key raw material for industries like iron, steel and chemicals. It can also help store wind and solar power longer than batteries can.
Hydrogen is enjoying unprecedented momentum around the world right now. In an encouraging sign, the United States, the European Union and Japan signed an agreement on the sidelines of the recent G20 meeting with energy and environment ministers to accelerate the development of hydrogen and fuel-cell technologies.
Reducing emissions from the more challenging sectors will almost certainly require capturing and storing the CO2 they produce on a massive scale.
More and more carbon capture projects are coming online, but we still have a long way to go. The ones in operation worldwide today only trap 30 million tons of CO2 a year. To meet sustainable energy goals, that would need to increase dramatically to 2.3 billion tons by 2040. Meeting that target requires pushing the technology forward.
Innovation can also help reduce emissions with designs for cars and buildings that contain less material with a high carbon footprint — such as steel, aluminium and cement — or that use recycled materials.
Finding and backing the right energy technologies for the future is tricky for investors, especially at such an uncertain time. As the global authority on energy, covering all fuels and all technologies, the IEA is ready to help governments, industries and citizens make good choices.
It’s time to harness humanity’s innovative genius to ensure a sustainable future for generations to come.