On the road to net zero

We spoke to Paolo Frankl, renewable energy expert at the IEA, on the transformational shifts needed to reach net zero by 2050.

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The latest research is clear: To avoid the worst climate impacts, global greenhouse gas emissions will need to drop by half by 2030 and reach net zero around mid-century. This essentially means that any human-produced carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere through technological or natural means. Reaching net-zero emissions is akin to achieving “climate neutrality”.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) issued a strong warning on the need to drastically scale back fossil fuels in its Net Zero by 2050 report. The first-of-its-kind report and roadmap for the global energy sector provides tangible ways to transition to a net-zero energy system by 2050 while ensuring stable and affordable energy supplies, providing universal energy access, and enabling robust economic growth.

This is no small feat but, according to the IEA, it is possible if we make some drastic changes. Paolo Frankl, Head of Renewables at the IEA, leads the Agency’s work on renewable energy, providing policy advice in the areas of technology, markets and system integration. We spoke to Paolo on the Agency’s net-zero report, what must be done to shift towards a lower-carbon society and how ISO standards can contribute.


Paolo Frankl

Head of Renewables at the International Energy Agency

Paolo Frankl
In supporting the transition to net zero by 2050, what is the role of organizations such as the IEA and ISO?
Paolo Frankl

Thank you for this question. First of all, our Roadmap shows the priority actions – in the form of four hundred milestones – that must be taken to guide the global journey to net zero by 2050. One important chapter of the report states that the clean energy transition is for and about people. That’s why the IEA has recently established a Global Commission on People-Centred Clean Energy Transitions to enable citizens to benefit from the opportunities and navigate the disruptions. This means engaging stakeholders and listening to their perceptions, but also explaining the trade-offs, because there are very many trade-offs in this transition. There is not just one possible pattern to net zero. We need to keep in mind that involving communities in the decision making creates an aligned momentum towards decarbonization and reduced environmental impacts.

To reach net zero by 2050, solar and wind alone would need to quadruple their 2020 record installation by the end of the decade.

The role of organizations like the IEA is to paint the broad picture. The numbers explicitly show that direct consequences of behavioural change amount to 4 % of the transition… Then there is a huge chunk – more than 50 % of cumulative emission reductions – where the consumer’s choice in terms of technologies makes the difference. And consumers decide based on what? On cost, perceived value and performance. This is where standards can help. ISO standards can contribute enormously in creating consumer confidence in products and services. ISO’s role is an important one. Like all international organizations, ISO has multiple functions, from convening power to gathering stakeholders, sketching the big picture and explaining the trade-offs.

How can ISO standards support the Paris Agreement and any decisions taken at the UNFCCC climate summits (known as Conference of the Parties – COP), in particular the decisive COP 26?

Momentum for change at COP 26 is building, but it is not without its challenges, including for renewables. Take one example. To reach net zero by 2050, solar and wind alone would need to quadruple their 2020 record installation by the end of the decade. Is this feasible? Theoretically, yes, but it’s a big challenge. Achieving this will also require the collective choices and action of millions of businesses and households. As said, in perspective, standards can help strengthen their confidence in investing in clean energies.

The greater hurdle, however, is not in the power sector but in the other energy end-use sectors. For instance, we need more policy attention on renewable heat. To give you an idea, just under 50 countries in the world have renewable heat policy targets compared to over 160 for renewable electricity. Strong and credible policy action is needed to jump-start the bioenergy and liquid biofuels sector that were hit dramatically by the current sanitary crisis. Bioenergy, as a whole, demands more policy attention, including on sustainability aspects, which are still very controversial.

What would you say is the strategic role of International Standards in the transition to clean energy? What standards will be needed for this global renewables energy group?

Broadly speaking, there are two types of standards for renewables. The first includes standards for performance. These are very important to make sure that renewables products and technologies can be traded according to clear criteria for efficiency and quality. This is all the more crucial in the thermal sector when dealing with heat in buildings. Several standards exist for solar energy, solid biofuels and wind energy turbines. The other group is standards for sustainability. These are particularly crucial for two families of renewable technology: bioenergy and hydropower. The development of standards that can be used in policy decisions around sustainability would be very useful indeed.

Emosson hydroelectric dam and lake surrounded by rocky landscape, in Switzerland.

Finally, a third category of standards worth expanding is the ISO 14020 series on environmental labels and declarations. Take, for instance, ISO 14025, which defines a standardized way of reporting the environmental impacts of a product or system over the whole life cycle, i.e. from manufacturing to intermediate and final products and their end-of-life. A big push for renewables will increasingly come from the corporate world – a major user of ISO standards. Claiming to use renewables in their own supply chains will make companies accountable for what they produce and what they sell. On the other side, consumers, policy makers and financial stakeholders will want to know the life-cycle impacts of products and services.

We will also need new standards moving forward. Standards for system integration are one such example. I don’t think there is advanced work in this field on a large scale for an entire power system. It is a very interesting, but very complex, question because there are multiple ways of achieving system integration between different energies sources, infrastructures and consumption sectors. That might be one area where internationally agreed standards could really help…

The COVID-19 crisis has inspired us all to take better care of the environment. What are the prospects for renewables in light of this?

Renewables are the only source of energy that wasn’t heavily impacted by the COVID-19 crisis. All other fuels were affected as a direct consequence of the lockdowns and ensuing contraction in fuel demand. As a result, we saw a small increase in total renewables demand, underpinned by an incredible growth in renewable electricity (up 7  % in 2020), while the overall world energy demand decreased by 4 %. This is the biggest drop in total energy demand experienced in one year since World War II – it has simply no precedent.

However, not all renewable energies are equal with respect to COVID-19. So while renewable electricity has been on the rise, renewable heat remained quite stable, displaying two observable trends. One was a decrease in renewables in industry due to lower demand; this was compensated by an increased demand for heat in buildings because many people stayed home. Moreover, for the first time in two decades, we also witnessed a big slash in transport biofuels, which plummeted 8 % in 2020 because of the reduced demand for gasoline and diesel.

The path to net‐zero emissions requires a massive deployment of innovative technologies. Can you give us an overview of that?

This is a huge topic. Electricity has the edge in the race to net zero. The next years will be about secure and effective system integration of variable renewable energy technologies, such as solar and wind. This means looking at the flexibility of technologies, not just at renewables but also other dispatchable supply (including other renewables such as hydro and bioenergy), stronger grids and interconnections, demand-side management and affordable storage. Two technologies that are really at the cutting edge of innovation, which we are determined to have in this transition, starting from this decade, are batteries and hydrogen production. Both can provide the necessary storage, a crucial element within broader system flexibility to integrate variable renewables.

Geothermal plant and Blue Lagoon leisure park, Iceland.

The second challenge is related to heat where it is fundamental to couple very high-efficient end-use technologies to the direct use of renewables. Think about very high-efficient heat pumps with geothermal or direct solar heat. A lot of innovation is needed there to have good and cost-effective solutions.

The third area is bioenergy, with a focus on producing sustainable liquid biofuels from waste and residues for use in the transportation sector, particularly aviation. This is the area where consensus is easiest because everybody can agree that it is less impactful than other routes. A fourth area is accelerating hydrogen production from renewable energy sources.

These are, in a nutshell, the big areas of innovation related to renewables: system integration of solar and wind, direct use of renewable heat, and bioenergy production, not just for transport but also for use in industry and bio materials. Finally, the next frontier is exploring ways to utilize low-C hydrogen in combination with bioenergy technologies to make sustainable products.

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