My message to the Leaders at the Climate Summit: We need real change in the real world

US President Joe Biden’s success in bringing together dozens of world leaders at the Leaders Summit on Climate this past week was a strong demonstration within his first 100 days in office of the American government’s renewed commitment to leading global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and it sent an encouraging message to countries around the world.

I was honoured to speak at the event alongside an impressive array of leaders from across government, industry, finance and civil society. It was heartening over the two days of the Summit to see numerous governments – including the United States, China, the European Union, Japan, Canada and Brazil – announcing new and reinforced commitments to reduce their emissions in the coming years and decades.

Many of the announcements added to the growing global momentum behind the goal of achieving net-zero emissions by mid-century. The level of engagement to fight climate change has never been higher. But commitments alone are not enough. We need real change in the real world. As things stand now, our global efforts are far from what’s necessary to reach internationally agreed targets and avert climate disaster. As I stressed at the Summit, not only does the data not match the rhetoric, but the gap is getting wider.

At the IEA, we estimate that energy-related carbon dioxide emissions are on course to surge by 1.5 billion tonnes in 2021 – the second-largest increase in history – reversing most of last year’s decline caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. To put that rise in perspective, it is equivalent to almost two-thirds the total emissions of the European Union. And a worrying amount of that increase comes from growing use of coal, which in many parts of the world remains an important fuel for power generation.

To reverse these increases and get to net-zero emissions, we need to transform our energy sector. We also need to drastically cut emissions from trucks, ships and planes. And we need to do the same for steel and cement factories, chemical plants and farms. It is a Herculean task, and it requires new levels of global cooperation. At the Summit, I was pleased to hear many world leaders also expressing support for stronger international collaboration – and announcing new plans to work together on some of the key challenges.

I was also glad to be able to share some grounds for optimism. Electricity generated from renewables will break records this year, according to the latest IEA projections. And sales of electric cars will reach another record high, after growing 40% last year.

We already have many vital clean energy technologies at our disposal today, including energy efficiency, solar, wind, nuclear and electric vehicles. Yet our analysis at the IEA shows that about half the reduction to get to net-zero emissions in 2050 will need to come from technologies that are not yet ready for market. This means massive leaps in innovation across batteries, hydrogen, synthetic fuels, carbon capture and many other areas.

To provide governments with a clear picture of the major energy policy actions that will be needed, the IEA will on 18 May release a comprehensive roadmap for how the global energy sector can reach net zero by 2050.

It’s an enormous challenge. But as President Biden and many of the other leaders at the Summit emphasised, this is also an enormous opportunity for our economies and for citizens around the world.

I took the opportunity to share one of the findings from the IEA’s upcoming 2050 Roadmap. It shows that concerted efforts to reach net zero by 2050 will triple clean energy investment opportunities over the next decade. Developing these technologies will generate millions of well-paid jobs and create the industries of the future.

At the IEA – and among our member and partner governments – a core priority is to make sure these benefits reach as many people as possible, not only by avoiding climate catastrophe but by extending electricity to those who don’t have it now and by creating good clean energy jobs. This is why I convened the Global Commission on People-Centred Clean Energy Transitions to bring together energy and climate leaders to identify how best to enable citizens to benefit from the opportunities and navigate the disruptions from the transformations taking place energy systems.

The message I wanted to leave with leaders at the Summit was that we all have to work together and increase our efforts to achieve our goals and create a better future for all of us. But also that we shouldn’t think about it simply as sharing the burden – it is about sharing the opportunity.