This article was published by the International Energy Agency on April 14, 2023.
By Fatih Birol
This article was first published by the Financial Times
Inertia is a powerful force in energy systems — and a key challenge for efforts to transition economies to clean energy and tackle climate change. Why install a heat pump when your gas boiler works fine or buy an electric car when your petrol one does the job? Why build new power lines to connect solar plants to the grid when fossil fuel plants are already plugged in and running?
But the ongoing energy security crisis has demonstrated how shocks can shake systems out of inertia. Russia’s efforts to gain political and economic advantage by pushing energy prices higher have spurred a major response by governments — not just in the EU but in many countries around the world — to speed up the deployment of cleaner and more secure alternatives.
The effects of all this are becoming clearer by the day. Six months ago, the International Energy Agency showed that the repercussions of the war in Ukraine were reshaping the future of global energy, with a peak in fossil fuel demand clearly visible for the first time and set to happen before the end of the 2020s.
This will be a historic shift: fossil fuels have held their share of global energy supply steady at around 80 per cent for decades. But the energy world is changing fast — and clean technologies are building momentum. The IEA’s latest data indicates that the peak in fossil fuel demand is moving even closer.
For this, we can thank an array of clean energy developments, such as solar panels, wind turbines, electric vehicles and heat pumps, and the policies and investments that are supercharging their growth. It’s well-known in energy and climate circles that these technologies are expanding quickly, but I think many people still don’t realize just how quickly. The implications need to be taken more into account, especially at a time when the energy crisis has prompted some countries and companies to push for new investment in large-scale fossil-fuel projects that may not actually start operations before the end of this decade.
Take solar panels. Over the past two years, their global deployment has been fast enough to align fully with the rate envisaged in the IEA’s ambitious pathway to net zero emissions by 2050. Low-carbon electricity is also getting a boost from the comeback by nuclear power in many parts of the world.
Sales of heat pumps, vital for the sustainable and secure heating of buildings, have been growing rapidly over the past two years, in Europe and elsewhere. Continued growth at this rate would almost double their share of heating in buildings worldwide by 2030. They are already outselling gas furnaces and boilers in the US and in a growing number of European countries — and demand remains robust in China, the world’s largest heat pump market.
Electric car sales are soaring, accounting for close to 15 per cent of the global car market in 2022, up from less than 5 per cent just two years earlier. Government subsidies have been vital in bringing down the upfront cost of buying an EV, while the day-to-day running costs are generally much cheaper than those of conventional cars. Plus, the recent move by OPEC+ countries to significantly cut oil production risks pushing oil prices to economically painful levels yet again, making the case for buying an electric car more compelling than ever.
New IEA analysis in our Global EV Outlook 2023, to be published later this month, shows that current trends in the rapidly growing global fleet of electric cars will avoid the need for the equivalent of 5mn barrels of oil a day by 2030. Strong government policies that encourage more people to purchase EVs can further increase this number.
The IEA pointed out in 2021 that global demand for petrol had already peaked, thanks to the growth of EVs and improvements in fuel economy. Today, our latest analysis shows that global demand for all road transport fuels — petrol, diesel and others combined — will peak by 2025 as a result of these ongoing trends.
The transition to clean energy is also accelerating in other sectors, including those where emissions are most challenging to reduce, such as steel. The project pipeline for producing steel with hydrogen rather than coal is expanding rapidly. If currently announced projects come to fruition, we could already have more than half of what we need in 2030 for the IEA’s net zero pathway.
These transformative developments are speeding up the emergence of a new clean energy economy. With this in mind, the push by some companies and governments to build new large-scale fossil fuel projects is not only a bet against the world reaching its climate goals — it is also a risky proposition for investors who want reasonable returns on their capital.