As the World Energy Conference is drawing near, the International Energy Agency (IEA) has recently released its new report. This ambitious document presents perspectives for the evolution of the world’s energy sector over the next thirty years. The IEA’s proposal is very radical and, if implemented, would have a considerable impact on people’s lifestyles and on the functioning of the economy; worse, it provides no guarantee of success in terms of climate protection objectives. Let us not embark without a parachute on a vessel that has not yet been certified.
A Devastating Scenario
The International Energy Agency’s (IEA) new scenario for 2050 (1) is a reflection of the forces that dominate the energy world today: industrial players who have understood the colossal profits to be gleaned from subsidized renewable energies and their absolute priority access to the grid; ideologues who dominate the media, paralyze the political world and place the climate within parentheses as soon as nuclear energy, analyzed pragmatically, is seen as essential to fight climate change. The result is a disruptive scenario by the IEA, which essentially puts forward electric renewable energies, both wind and solar, and is very shy with regard to nuclear power. As political cowardice dominates in many countries, ideology, in this case anti-nuclear, weighs on the IEA analysts. Their scenario gives too little attention to the climate change issue and the populations’ well-being; it minimizes the difficulties associated to non-dispatchable electricity production; it is overeager to serve renewable energy speculators and political ecology.
A Report for the “World Energy Conference”
In its latest report, “Net Zero by 2050”, aimed at tackling the climate crisis, written at the request of the “World Energy Conference”, the IEA cannot but note that the greenhouse gas reduction targets are far from being reached. In the energy sector (2), emissions are rising again in 2021, and the IEA recognizes that the task of achieving carbon neutrality is “monumental”, with a near tripling of electricity generation by 2050 worldwide.
Considering that current policies are proving ineffective, what are the IEA’s recommendations for the world? To continue the same policy: increasing intermittent power generation (wind and solar) sevenfold by 2030; increasing the number of electric vehicles 18-fold; reducing our energy intensity (3) by 4% per year. Looking ahead to 2050, the IEA notes that the 1.5°C threshold on temperature increase will not be met, that it will be, at best, 2.1°C; that GHG emissions will still be significant; that global energy demand will have decreased by 8% (despite the 2 billion additional people on Earth); and that intermittent electricity production, which is not reliable and is, indeed, intermittent, will have more than tripled relative to 2030.
Underlying this scenario, we find very optimistic statements about the industrial availability of technologies that are still in their infancy (CO2 storage, second-generation biofuels, small reactors, carbon-free hydrogen) in the 2030 perspective, and risky projections, all of which must be fulfilled, for 2050 (massive use of the hydrogen vector, direct air capture of CO2, buildings with integrated heat storage, etc.).
The obstacles, which are major given the scale of the proposed changes, are of course identified by the IEA, but the scenario considers them to be surmountable, without offering any credible alternatives. What will be the social acceptability of such upheavals when final energy consumption is supposed to decrease by 10% by 2030 and then by 20% by 2050 (relative to 2019)? What will be the availability of materials, technologies and skills in the next ten years? Are the optimistic projections on the cost of this transition by 2050 credible? Many questions remain and it is important to stress the importance:
- on the one hand, of what will be done by countries that account for the bulk of CO2 emissions (China, USA, India, Russia, Germany), i.e. nearly 60% of 2019 global emissions, each of which still enjoys considerable fossil fuel reserves,
- and, on the other hand, of the evolution of the “frugal” countries such as those in Africa, but with rapidly growing populations and a massive recourse to fossil fuels.
The IEA confirms that electricity will be essential in the future global mix, with dramatic changes in 2030 and 2050 compared to 2019:
- A consumption that increases by 38% and then 264%,
- A share of renewable energies that more than triples and then increases eightfold,
- A share of intermittent electricity, solar and wind, which is multiplied by 7.2 then 23, to represent two thirds of total electricity generation in 2050.
Intermittency becomes the central issue in the management of electricity mixes, with massive storage needs (hydrogen?), and strong constraints on uses. The share of nuclear power, despite its being carbon-free and dispatchable, although it doubles, remains limited to 8% of generation, and its financing rate remains fixed at 8%, which is about twice that of other energies. This is a definite handicap that reveals a clear lack of concern for the long term at a time when interest rates are very low: a reasonable rate should not exceed 4%. And one wonders under what pressure the IEA is proposing this figure, when its economists are perfectly aware of the consequences, financial of course, but above all industrial.
A Two-speed World
What is looming behind these hazardous projections? Very probably, once the failure is confirmed, within a few years, we will see a two-speed world according to how ideologies weigh in each country and to their degree of technological development.
- A subset that will develop nuclear power, the only reasonably assured alternative to hydropower, biomass resources being limited and subject to land use conflicts. This subset includes essentially China, India, the USA, Russia, and some European countries (including France???), i.e. 40% of the world population. This assumes that the nuclear industry recovers its dynamism and that the administrative constraints that restrict it return to being reasonable. Will Europe continue to lag behind the major countries?
- A subset that has no other solution than to hope for massive financial aid from the former, to adapt to an energy supply that will require cutting-edge skills, contrary to popular belief, if it wants to control its economy and provide its population with reliable access to energy, mainly electricity and its countless uses. But also a subset that risks seeing its resources exported to the developed world, concerned, for example, with the preservation of its biodiversity.
This IEA publication can only remind us of the sensational media coverage of a scenario for France developed jointly by Réseau de Transport d’Electricité (4) and the IEA, presented in January 2021. More cautiously, the President of RTE indicated that everything remained to be done to allow the integration of a very high proportion of intermittent renewable. He pointed out that four strict and cumulative conditions” were needed: electrical system stability, massive storage of electrical energy combined with extreme demand-side flexibility, significant operational reserves and a considerable grid development. These remarks apply even more to the IEA study, which takes the entire planet into account, with developing countries representing 60% of the population.
More than ever, it is essential that nuclear power, a remarkably low-carbon energy, provide, for a country like France, the possibility to escape the insane technological, industrial and social uncertainties of such roadmaps. This is the message that the NGO PNC-France puts forward. It is high time that the political procrastination of the last few decades give way to a dynamic nuclear policy that serves the country and the world. As the IEA Director General who has just presented this new IEA global report, Dr. Fatih Birol, said last January “Closing French nuclear power plants would be a mistake. Nuclear energy is a national asset for France. In recent decades, its development has been one of the components of France’s economic growth, and on a technical level, it has proven that it works on a large scale […]. The objective to reach net zero emissions by 2050 is a herculean task. We cannot afford to do without one or the other clean energy.”
(1) Net zero by 2050 – A Roadmap for the Global Energy Sector (https://www.iea.org/reports/net-zero-by-2050)
(2) The energy sector accounts for 75% of global CO2 emissions, of which 41% are due to electricity.
(3) Energy intensity: an indicator which represents the ratio of a country’s energy consumption to its gross domestic product (GDP).
(4) Réseau de Transport de l’Electricité (RTE) – the French transmission system operator
Original text published on the PNC-France internet site under the title “Climate Change Panic: the International Energy Agency Goes Off the Track!”
Translated by Elisabeth Huffer
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