A coal-fired power plant in Kansas. The energy sector is...

A coal-fired power plant in Kansas. The energy sector is the world's biggest source of atmospheric carbon, according to the Internatonal Energy Agency. Credit: AP/Charlie Riedel

If the fight to avoid catastrophic global warming were a football game, then Team Let's Maybe Not Have an Apocalypse would be stuck on its own 2-yard line, trailing by a touchdown with less than a minute to go. Also, the starting quarterback has a torn ACL. A victory is still possible, but it will take legendary effort.

The International Energy Agency on Tuesday released an update of the energy sector's progress toward reaching net-zero greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050. The sector is the world's biggest source of atmospheric carbon, so hitting this target is critical to limiting planetary heating to 1.5C above preindustrial averages and thus keeping the climate from becoming far more hostile to human life than it already is. On this front, there is good and bad news.

First, the good news: In the two years since the IEA's first net-zero progress report in 2021, solar power, electric-vehicle sales and battery storage capacity have all boomed. Roughly a third of all the photovoltaic solar installation in human history happened in just 2021 and 2022, the IEA reports. Those two years also accounted for more than half of all the EV sales and battery installations ever.

This has gone a long way toward curbing the energy sector's emissions of planet-heating carbon. Other gains, such as efficiency improvements and methane capture, should be relatively easy to accomplish. At the moment, even if governments, businesses and consumers just threw up their hands and quit trying today, the progress they have made already could limit global warming to 2.4C, the IEA figures. That's a far cry from some of the more-apocalyptic scenarios thrown around in the years before the Paris agreement of 2015, when most of the world's countries set 1.5C of warming as a target.

But even 2.4C of warming is still too much. Consider how chaotic the climate has already become after just 1.2C. July was the planet's hottest month ever amid what will surely be history's hottest year. The oceans are smashing heat records. The U.S. has already experienced an unprecedented number of billion-dollar natural disasters in a calendar year, and it's still only September. Canada is suffering through its worst wildfire season ever, the smoke from which has choked U.S. cities far to the south. Antarctic sea ice had its weakest expansion on record during the region's latest winter, continuing a trend that could trigger even more heating. And all of this will seem like a pleasant memory if global warming should double.

Unfortunately, that outcome still feels likelier at the moment than nailing the 1.5C target because the bad news in the IEA's report takes a little longer to list than the good news. Energy's carbon emissions set a new high of 37 billion tons last year, driven by the post-COVID economic rebound and the energy crisis triggered by Russia's invasion of Ukraine, which inspired a scramble to produce and burn more fossil fuels, particularly in China and other developing economies.

The IEA still expects emissions to peak soon, along with fossil-fuel demand, followed by a collapse in coal, oil and natural-gas capacity by 2040. But a lot has to go right with renewables to make that collapse happen, and the IEA sees a near future in which natural gas still plays a large role. As my Bloomberg Opinion colleague Javier Blas has noted, the IEA may be playing fast and loose with the definition of the word "peak." The better geological analogue at the moment seems to be "uncomfortably high mesa."

Meanwhile, wind power has been struggling lately, making it far more difficult to achieve the tripling of renewable-power capacity the IEA says is necessary by 2030 to stay on the path of 1.5C. Soaring costs and political pushback have stalled many of the big wind projects necessary to fully decarbonize energy.

The IEA's net-zero scenario also relies on carbon capture and storage, an expensive, unwieldy technology that is far from realizing its promise. Without it, we won't be able to suck carbon out of the emissions of utilities and factories, making heroic renewable investments even more critical.

And the IEA calls for a doubling of electrical grid investment by 2030 while also acknowledging that planning, permitting and building transmission lines can take a decade to complete. Without the politically tricky permitting reform necessary to connect clean power to the grid, it may not make much sense to triple down on it. The growing political backlash and backsliding in the U.S., U.K., China and elsewhere makes planning even trickier.

I don't want to sound too gloomy about all of this. Like the football team buried deep in its own territory, we have to be optimistic we can succeed. It's certainly still too early to give up. But on balance, we have spent the past two years putting ourselves in a slightly deeper hole.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners. Mark Gongloff is a Bloomberg Opinion editor and columnist covering climate change. He previously worked for Fortune.com, the HuffPost and The Wall Street Journal.

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