Energy Transitions: Benchmarking the IEA Net Zero by 2050 Scenario

Aaron Foyer
Benchmarking the IEA Net Zero by 2050 Scenario

How does the International Energy Agency’s scenario to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 compare to past energy transitions?

The International Energy Agency (IEA) released its Net Zero by 2050 scenario in 2021. Alongside the release, the IEA cautioned that the road to net zero by 2050 “is narrow and requires an unprecedented transformation of how energy is produced, transported and used globally.”

With a rapid adoption of renewables included in the scenario, it’s worth comparing how the IEA’s various scenarios compare with past energy transitions.

Key IEA Scenarios

Stated Policies Scenario (STEPS): Reflects the impact of existing policy frameworks and today’s announced policy intentions.

Sustainable Development Scenario (SDS): Outlines a transformation of the global energy system which is fully aligned with the Paris Agreement’s objective of holding the increase in the global average temperate to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels.

Net Zero by 2050 Scenario (Net Zero): A pathway which would reach net zero global emissions by 2050, a target which is more aggressive than what was outlined in the Paris Agreement.

Benchmarking Against Past Transitions

Net Zero by 2050 Scenario: Renewable adoption to reach net zero by 2050 would be twice as fast as any previous energy transition

Sustainable Development Scenario: Renewable adoption is moderately quicker than previous energy transitions

Stated Policies Scenario: Renewable adoption is roughly in line with previous energy transition

Previous energy transitions – from wood to coal and from coal to oil and gas – have moved to energy sources which are larger in scale and denser in energy. Large, energy-dense sources of energy have enabled an easier advancement as a species.

The transition from fossil fuels to renewables will be challenging, as it will be the first to consciously step backwards on the size-density scale. On top of this, if it follows the IEA’s Net Zero by 2050 pathway, it will happen twice as fast as any previous transition.


Net Zero by 2050 – The IEA’s energy scenario to reach net-zero emissions globally by 2050

Sustainable Development Scenario: The IEA’s energy scenario with emissions reduction in line with the Paris Agreement

Stated Policies Scenario: The IEA’s energy scenario aligned with every country’s current policy regarding energy and emissions


m2: meters squared

W/m2: Watts per squared meter


Vaclav Smil, Energy Transitions


Outlook for fuel supply – World Energy Outlook 2020 – Analysis – IEA