I research and write about science, policy and politics.
More than a decade ago, Gwyn Prins and Steve Rayner characterized climate policy as an “auction of promises” in which politicians “vied to outbid each other with proposed emissions targets that were simply not achievable.” For instance, among Democrats competing for the presidency in 2020, several, including Joe Biden, have committed to achieving net-zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050. Candidate Andrew Yang bid 2049, and Cory Booker topped that by offering 2045. Bernie Sanders has offered a 71% reduction by 2030.
One reason that we see this “auction of promises” is that the targets and timetables for emissions reductions are easy to state but difficult to comprehend. Here I’ll present what net-zero carbon dioxide emissions for 2050 actually means in terms of the rate of deployment of carbon-free energy and the coincident decommissioning of fossil fuel infrastructure.
To conduct this analysis I use the BP Statistical Review of World Energy, which presents data on global and national fossil fuel consumption in units called “million tons of oil equivalent” or mtoe. In 2018 the world consumed 11,743 mtoe in the form of coal, natural gas and petroleum. The combustion of these fossil fuels resulted in 33.7 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions. In order for those emissions to reach net-zero, we will have to replace about 12,000 mtoe of energy consumption expected for 2019. (I ignore so-called negative emissions technologies, which do not presently exist at scale.)
Another useful number to know is that there are 11,051 days left until January 1, 2050. To achieve net-zero carbon dioxide emissions globally by 2050 thus requires the deployment of >1 mtoe of carbon-free energy consumption (~12,000 mtoe/11,051 days) every day, starting tomorrow and continuing for the next 30+ years. Achieving net-zero also requires the corresponding equivalent decommissioning of more than 1 mtoe of energy consumption from fossil fuels every single day.