Net zero by 2050: So easy to say, so hard to do

Net zero by 2050 is the most ambitious, expensive and complex restructuring of an essential component of human existence in history, says Calgary writer and oil service executive David Yager.

Abandoning fossil fuels today for alternatives that don’t yet exist carries great risk, says David Yager

A dump truck works near the Syncrude oil sands extraction facility near Fort McMurray, Alta. By 2050, the International Energy Agency calls for three-quarters of the world’s oil production to be replaced. The cost will be enormous, says Calgary writer David Yager. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

This column is an opinion from David Yager, a Calgary oil service executive, writer and author. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

The most frequently repeated solution to the climate change challenge is "net zero by 2050." Everyone is committed — governments, oil companies, even banks. The abbreviation is NZE, Net Zero Emissions.

The pledge is meaningful, easy to repeat, hard to forget, and far enough away that nobody asks how much progress was made yesterday.

NZE has two meanings. 

Technically, it means that by 2050 there will be no net atmospheric carbon emissions from human activity.   

Politically, it is a declaration of deep concern about climate change.

They are not the same thing.     

The International Energy Agency recently released a report called Net Zero By 2050 – A Roadmap for the Global Energy Sector, which is a path to achieving NZE.

It asserts that the world should immediately quit developing new supplies of coal, oil and natural gas, because if NZE is to be more than a slogan, the end of fossil fuels starts now.

This caught everyone's attention, particularly in Alberta.

Most oil production replaced

By 2050, the IEA calls for three-quarters of the world's oil production to be replaced, and over two-thirds of the natural gas. The IEA writes, "supplies (for both) become increasingly concentrated in a small number of low‐cost producers." OPEC's production share rises significantly. 

The IEA was founded in the 1970s in response to the world oil crisis. Today it advocates for the climate policies of many of its member countries. The NZE press release reads, "World's first comprehensive energy roadmap shows government actions to rapidly boost clean energy and reduce fossil fuel use can create millions of jobs, lift economic growth and keep net zero in reach."

The plan "…sets out a cost-effective and economically productive pathway, resulting in a clean, dynamic and resilient energy economy dominated by renewables like wind and solar instead of fossil fuels."

According to the International Energy Agency, government actions to rapidly boost clean energy and reduce fossil fuel use can create millions of jobs. According to David Yager, the IEA's map is missing a lot of roads. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

NZE is the most ambitious, expensive and complex restructuring of an essential component of human existence in history. Because when it comes to staying alive, energy is as important as food, air and water.

Since the coal-fuelled industrial revolution began, population, prosperity, energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions have grown simultaneously. 

The IEA sees most growth continuing. By 2050 the population will rise by two billion — another 25 per cent — and GDP will increase by 72 per cent. But total energy consumption will fall by eight per cent.

The only way growth can decouple itself from energy demand is if current consumers use less. This includes people and industry. 

Today nearly one billion people don't have electricity, but the IEA plan anticipates everyone having primary energy by 2030. If total energy consumption is to decline while the population grows and more people gain access, it is obvious major adjustments are required.

Petroleum-fuelled cars obsolete

Behavioural changes are critical to the IEA's outcome, resulting in individual energy consumption declining significantly among those accustomed to unlimited quantities at low cost. Business and leisure air travel will not increase from 2019 levels. There will be fewer international vacations. In only nine years 60 per cent of all new cars will be electric. By 2035, new petroleum-fuelled vehicles will be obsolete. 

High speed electric rail will replace short haul flights. The number of people without a car will rise from 45 to 70 per cent. Instead of driving, people will take the bus, rideshare or walk. Your home will be colder in the winter and warmer in the summer. 

Since stern warnings aren't working, the only tools available to reduce consumption are higher costs or lower disposable income. Canada has already told voters to expect continually rising carbon taxes. Higher overall taxes are inevitable to support continued deficit spending, which the IEA says is essential. We'll see how that goes. 

Because the cost is enormous.

From 2016 to 2020, the world spent about $2 trillion each year on all forms of energy supply and delivery. Over the next 10 years this will rise to $3.5 trillion annually. From 2030 to 2040 the figure jumps to $4.7 trillion per year. In the homestretch to 2050, the annual spending levels off at $4.5 trillion. The total spending between now and 2050 is $129 trillion, $69 trillion more than 30 years at recent investment levels. 

A WestJet jet plane parked on the tarmac at an airport.
WestJet said in a statement Tuesday it is "not actively pursuing financial support from the federal government," but is open to resuming talks in the future. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

All this spending is framed as a marvelous opportunity, "An unparalleled clean energy investment boom (that) lifts global economic growth" which will ensure "significant economic benefits as the world emerges from the COVID-19 crisis. The jump in private and government spending creates millions of jobs."

Why the high cost? Isn't the price of renewable energy at the source plunging?

What clean energy proponents don't always include is the cost of replacing everything from the source to the final application. There is also the cost of electricity storage when wind and solar don't work. 

The IEA plan doesn't just call for investment to bring energy to those without it, or to keep up with population growth. The largest single cost is replacing existing energy infrastructure.

Most existing fossil fuel assets will become worthless. Millions of oil jobs will be lost, as will billions in government fuel tax revenues. Wind and solar will replace coal and gas-fuelled power plants. Pipelines, refineries and gas stations will be replaced by power lines and new grids. For many this will mean a new furnace, hot water heater, insulation and car. Or a much smaller dwelling.

Creating jobs, but not wealth

All of this spending and activity will create jobs, but not wealth. Bringing energy to those that don't have it results in opportunity and prosperity. Redeploying funds to replace something you already enjoy does not yield the same economic benefit. 

Energy experts have calculated that the number of windmills, solar arrays and batteries required to replace fossil fuels on a global scale is staggering. Huge amounts of metals for electrical conductor wires and rare minerals will have to be found, mined and processed. Where and how is not explained. 

The most stunning part of the IEA roadmap reads, "…almost half the reductions will come from technologies that are currently at the demonstration or prototype phase," such as bioenergy aircraft fuel, hydrogen, and economical carbon capture. These are aspirational, not commercial. 

Reducing emissions is critical. But energy is also critical for human existence. Abandoning fossil fuels today for alternatives that don't yet exist carries great risk — fundamentals like food, health care, heat and transportation. 

The IEA's map is missing a lot of roads.

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David Yager is a Calgary oil service executive, writer, author and energy policy analyst. His book, From Miracle to Menace — Alberta, A Carbon Story, was released in 2019.