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A new climate change report offers something unique: hope

An International Energy Agency report says countries are setting records building solar power projects like this one in Mona, Utah in 2022.
Rick Bowmer
An International Energy Agency report says countries are setting records building solar power projects like this one in Mona, Utah in 2022.

Updated September 26, 2023 at 3:30 PM ET

Here's something you don't hear much when it comes to climate change: hope.

Countries are setting records in deploying climate-friendly technologies, such as solar power and electric vehicles, according to a new International Energy Agency report. The agency, which represents countries that make up more than 80% of global energy consumption, projects demand for coal, oil and natural gas will peak before 2030.

While greenhouse gas emissions keep rising, the IEA finds that there's still a path to reaching net-zero emissions by 2050 and limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit. That's what's needed to avoid the the worst effects of climate change, such as catastrophic flooding and deadly heatwaves.

"The pathway to 1.5 [degrees] C has narrowed in the past two years, but clean energy technologies are keeping it open," said Fatih Birol, IEA executive director, in a statement. "The good news is we know what we need to do – and how to do it."

That overall message is more optimistic than the one issued in 2021, when the IEA released its first Net Zero Roadmap.

In addition to optimism, the 2023 version shows that the transition from fossil fuels to cleaner forms of energy will have to speed up even more in the coming decade. For example, the world is on track to spend $1.8 trillion on clean energy this year. To meet the target outlined in the 2015 Paris climate agreement among the world's nations, the IEA finds annual spending would have to more than double to $4.5 trillion by the early 2030s.

As renewable energy costs continue to decline, the IEA says tripling installations of new renewable energy, mostly solar and wind power, will be the biggest driver of emissions reductions. But the agency warns countries will have to speed up permitting and improve their electricity grids for that power to get to where it's needed.

The agency also finds a little room for new fossil fuel developments, such as the controversial Willow project the Biden administration approved in Alaska earlier this year. The roadmap does leave room for some new oil and gas drilling to avoid "damaging price spikes or supply gluts."

The report comes as countries prepare to meet for an annual climate summit in Dubai at the end of November and amid calls to phase out fossil fuels entirely.

"It's an extraordinary moment in history: we now have all the tools needed to free ourselves from planet-heating fossil fuels, but there's still no decision to do it," said Kaisa Kosonen with Greenpeace International in a statement.

The oil and gas industry continues to argue it can be a part of addressing climate change, despite researchshowing most oil, gas and coal reserves would have to stay in the ground.

The American Petroleum Institute offered a defense of its business in response to the IEA report. "Policymakers should not ignore current market realities—which are clearly signaling the need for more supply of oil and natural gas—in favor of any scenario models with predetermined outcomes," said Dustin Meyer, American Petroleum Institute senior vice president.

If countries fail to achieve climate goals, the IEA report warns carbon removal — essentially vacuuming carbon dioxide from the atmosphere — would be required. The agency calls those technologies "expensive and unproven" at the scale that would be needed to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

"Removing carbon from the atmosphere is very costly. We must do everything possible to stop putting it there in the first place," Birol said.

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Jeff Brady is a National Desk Correspondent based in Philadelphia, where he covers energy issues and climate change. Brady helped establish NPR's environment and energy collaborative which brings together NPR and Member station reporters from across the country to cover the big stories involving the natural world.