A Climate-Neutral EU by 2050

As the EU works to reset its emission reduction goals to align more closely with the 1.5°C goal of the Paris Agreement, a question arises around the scale and scope of the energy transition required. What will it look like? How fast should it proceed? Which technologies need to be accelerated to achieve the desired outcome? To help answer these and provide a perspective on the transition, my colleagues in the Shell Scenario team have produced a scenario sketch of the journey forward, arriving in 2050 with a net-zero emissions energy system (NB: The pathway was formulated in late 2019 prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and therefore does not include the energy system disruption being seen in 2020).

From a policy perspective, the EU has been addressing the climate issue for at least 15 years, with the EU Emissions Trading System in place since 2005. The 2020 energy situation arises from the 2007 climate and energy package, which included three key targets:

  • 20% cut in greenhouse gas emissions (from 1990 levels)
  • 20% of EU energy from renewables
  • 20% improvement in energy efficiency

The targets were set by EU leaders in 2007 and enacted in legislation in 2009. They are also headline targets of the Europe 2020 strategy for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth. Within this, the EU Emissions Trading System is the EU’s key tool for cutting greenhouse gas emissions from large-scale facilities in the power and industry sectors, as well as the aviation sector. The ETS covers around 45% of the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions. In 2020, the target is for the emissions from these sectors to be 21% lower than in 2005.

The year 2020 represents a halfway point from 1990 to 2050, during which 20% of the hard deployment work has been done, but with a number of key technologies available at scale that hardly existed or didn’t exist around the turn of the century. Solar PV and Electric Vehicles are two examples (although solar PV did exist in 2000, it was expensive and small scale). That leaves just 30 years for the remaining 80% reduction, which must also include bringing to scale several other technologies which are yet to be deployed in the EU. This is a tall order and the scenario sketch illustrates how extraordinarily stretching it will be.

The additional key technologies that must move quickly to scaled deployment are as follows;

  • Clean hydrogen production via electrolysis of water or removing and storing the carbon from natural gas;
  • Hydrogen fuel cell road transport for heavy goods (see chart below).
  • Carbon capture and storage in various industrial settings – e.g. steel, cement, petrochemicals.
  • Biomass power plants fitted with carbon capture and storage (as a negative emissions technology).
  • Air transport that utilizes hydrogen as a fuel – in the sketch first flights are imagined in the mid-2030s.
  • Advanced biofuels for planes, ships and heavy road transport (see chart below).
  • Grid scale electricity storage.
  • Electrification of light and heavy industry processes.
  • Use of hydrogen in homes for heating and cooking.
  • Some technologies that appear late in the sketch will need intensive development over the medium term. Hydrogen as a fuel for industrial facilities, but particularly iron ore smelting, is a good example.

On the assumption that development and demonstration of all the above proceeds rapidly, deployment kicks in for most during the 2030s. But in the 2020s the energy technologies that have been nurtured over the last twenty years must be accelerated. For example, by 2030 solar must be quadruple current deployment, wind nearly triple current deployment and nuclear must be growing again, not declining.

In the 2030s the really hard work starts, with carbon capture and storage moving from first demonstration in the EU by 2025 to 40 medium sized facilities (one million tonnes CO2 stored per annum) by 2030 and over 100 by 2035. New technologies such as hydrogen fuel cell trucks must become ubiquitous during the 2030s, with at least 600,000 vehicles on the road by the end of that decade.

Hydrogen trucks EU

Biofuels EU

All of the above will require both technology development incentives and deployment policies. The analysis assumes a rising carbon pricing mechanism – whether explicit or implicit – to more than €200 per tonne of CO2 equivalent by 2050 to deliver and sustain the emission cuts and CO2 management necessary for the EU to reach climate neutrality. But even the EU ETS will need to change, as I discussed in a recent post.

While carbon pricing is an efficient lever for reallocating resources and driving behavioural change, it will not be enough on its own. A sectoral approach to policy which brings clean technologies, fuels and products to market, as well as their deployment and diffusion at scale, must urgently be developed. It is essential that policy should help provide consumers and businesses with low-carbon alternatives to adopt.

In the sketch, 2050 marks a point of climate neutrality for Europe, helped by the development of large scale carbon sinks through reforestation. But this isn’t the end of the transition, merely a point of significance. The hydrogen economy will continue to grow, electrification of industry will expand and efficiency gains will continue to be made. As was illustrated in the Sky Scenario, Europe will likely shift to become a net-negative emission economy during the second half of the century, a necessary requirement to ensure global net zero emissions and a 1.5°C limit on warming.

Download the EU Sketch here.