Decarbonisation – net zero or bust?
Climate change was hard to miss in 2019. Alongside the global climate strike and the United Nations Climate Action Summit in September, there was a swathe of commitments by countries and companies to a net zero carbon pathway. The UK, France and Sweden are now amongst the countries that have set themselves this objective. Meanwhile, big corporate names like Amazon.com, Daimler and Duke Energy – one of the largest electricity companies in the US – trumpeted their own net zero carbon commitments.
What does net zero mean? Simply put, stabilising global average temperatures at any level means net manmade greenhouse gas emissions have to come down to zero, with any emissions offset by removing carbon. The earlier that happens, the lower the ultimate rise in temperatures. According to the scientists at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, getting to net zero by 2070 should limit the rise to 2 degrees Celsius, but for the more ambitious 1.5 degree target, the world would need to be carbonneutral by 2050. Busting the carbon budget will mean higher and sharper temperature rises, and more extreme physical impacts on people and the planet.
The pathway to net zero is perhaps easiest to see in the electricity generation sector. Alternatives to coal and gas generation exist, and whilst in the past they relied on subsidies, the cost reductions in renewable technologies have been so dramatic that they are often the most economical option even with no subsidy at all. The UK’s latest offshore wind auction saw some prices drop under the £40/ MWh (megawatt hour) level – less than half the price that has been promised for energy from the country’s latest new nuclear plant.
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Renewable additions must accelerate to meet targets
Annual renewable growth required to meet net zero emissions (Gw)
Solving the electricity part of the carbon equation looks possible, then. But electricity counts for only around a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions, and decarbonising other activities looks considerably trickier. Transportation is at a much earlier stage of the journey. Electric vehicles (EVs) make up well under one percent of the car passenger fleet, and there remains a lot to be done on affordability and installing charging infrastructure – some of which is going to require public sector investment. Mass uptake of EVs will also put extra pressure on the electricity sector, upping the need for even more zero carbon sources.
Some headway is being made on emissions from the production of materials such as steel, with ArcelorMittal confident enough that solutions will be found that they have committed to being carbon neutral by 2050 for their European business. Perhaps the hardest challenges are in food production – making up only 15% of global emissions, but with limited solutions in sight. The shift to non-meat proteins would need to accelerate markedly to make a dent.
A range of technological solutions are also being developed, some more tried and tested than others. Systems that would strip carbon dioxide from coal or gas plants and bury it have been shown to work in pilot schemes, though they face challenges with cost and public acceptability.