IEA “Net Zero by 2050” roadmap: the role of the refrigeration sector

In its latest report, the IEA stresses that the path to net‐zero emissions by 2050 is narrow. In this context, the refrigeration sector, including heat pumps, has an important role to play. 

The report “Net Zero by 2050: A roadmap for the global energy system” (1) published by the International Energy Agency in May 2021 sets out over 400 milestones, spanning all sectors and technologies, so that the global energy sector can reach net zero by 2050.  

This report has had an important resonance since, in the communiqué of the recent G7 Summit in south-west England, the leaders of the world's largest market economies called on all countries, in particular major emitting economies, to join them in making this goal a reality (2). 


In the Paris Agreement, countries agreed to “achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second‐half of the century”. As of 23 April 2021, 44 countries and the European Union have pledged to meet a net‐zero emissions (NZE) target: in total, they account for around 70% of global CO2 emissions and GDP. Achieving existing NZE pledges would reduce emissions globally to 22 Gt CO2 in 2050, which is a major reduction compared with current policies, but still far from net-zero emissions. 


The IEA stresses that the path to net‐zero emissions by 2050 is narrow: staying on it requires immediate and massive deployment of all available clean and efficient energy technologies such as solar photovoltaics, wind, hydropower and nuclear. In addition, innovative technologies such as advanced batteries, hydrogen production electrolysers, and direct air capture and storage are expected to make vital contributions to reducing CO2 emissions between 2030 and 2050.  


In the NZE scenario presented in this report, global CO2 emissions from energy and industrial processes fall to around 21 Gt in 2030 and to net‐zero in 2050. Per capita CO2 emissions in advanced economies drop from around 8 tCO2 per person in 2020 to around 3.5 tCO2 in 2030.  Per capita emissions also fall in emerging markets and developing economies, but from a much lower starting point. 

The NZE scenario also means that the world economy in 2030 is some 40% larger than today, but uses 7% less energy. Accordingly, a major worldwide push to increase energy efficiency is essential to achieve this objective. 


The refrigeration sector has an important role to play in these various objectives and several refrigeration applications are highlighted for this purpose in the report. 


For example, in the NZE scenario, global hydrogen use would expand from less than 90 Mt in 2020 to more than 200 Mt in 2030; this requires, among other things, new hydrogen transport infrastructure applying liquefaction processes at cryogenic temperatures. 


Carbon Capture, Utilisation and Storage would facilitate the transition to net‐zero  CO2 emissions: from the current level of around 40 Mt  CO2 captured per year, this figure would soar to 1.6 Gt  CO2 by 2030 and 7.6 Gt  CO2 in 2050. In this respect, cryogenic  CO2 capture by phase change is an attractive technology (3). 


Space cooling represented only 5% of total energy consumption in buildings worldwide in 2020, but demand for cooling is likely to grow strongly in the coming decades with rising incomes and a hotter climate. In the NZE scenario, 60% of households have an air conditioner in 2050, up from 35% in 2020. High‐performance building envelopes, including bioclimatic designs and insulation, can reduce the demand for space cooling by 30‐50%, while providing greater resilience during extreme heat events. In the NZE, electricity demand for space cooling is growing annually by 1% to reach 2 500 TWh by 2050.  Without the 2 000 TWh of savings from residential building envelope improvements and higher efficiency equipment, space cooling demand would be almost twice as high. 


Heat pumps are an essential link in achieving the net-zero emissions targets by 2050. In the NZE scenario, they provide over 20% of final energy demand for space heating in 2050, up from a little over 10% today. By 2050, over 85% of buildings will be zero-carbon ready, reducing the average useful heating intensity by 75%, with heat pumps meeting over half of heating needs. This means that the heat pumps stock would jump from 180 million in 2020 to 600 million in 2030 and 1,800 million in 2050.