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How We Can Avoid Climate Catastrophe

A new report shows an economically viable path to net-zero CO2 emissions in key industries by 2060
Editor’s Note: The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report sounded alarm bells when it showed it will be all but impossible to avoid devastating global warming of 1.5°C-2°C this century. In a new report for the Energy Transitions Commission, “Mission Possible: Reaching Net-Zero Carbon Emissions From Harder-to-Abate Sectors by Mid-Century,” INET Chairman Adair Turner and his co-authors issue a call to action and roadmap to steer the globe from the path the IPCC predicts. Below is an excerpt from the report.

The Paris climate agreement committed the world to limit global warming to well below 2°C and keep it as close as possible to 1.5°C above preindustrial levels. The latest IPCC report[1] has warned the world of the major negative impacts on humanity and the planet of a rise in global temperatures of 1.5°C, and the even more dramatic consequences of 2°C global warming. It therefore urges the world to aim for 1.5°C and recommends achieving net-zero CO2 emissions globally by 2050.

The Energy Transitions Commission (ETC)—a coalition of business, finance and civil society leaders from across the spectrum of energy producing and using industries—supports the objective of limiting global warming ideally to 1.5°C and, at the very least, well below 2°C.

To achieve even the 2°C goal, and to have any chance of reaching the aspired 1.5°C limit, it is essential for energy and industrial systems to achieve net-zero CO2 emissions within themselves – i.e. without permanently relying on offsets from the land use sector. The ETC strongly believes that this is achievable by 2050 in developed economies and 2060 in developing economies[2].

This is an imperative, but also a major opportunity. As the New Climate Economy has demonstrated, the new economic model required to avoid harmful climate change will also drive rapid technological innovation, increase resource productivity, create jobs in new industries and deliver local environmental benefits which increase quality of life.

Action over the next decade will be vital, both to deliver the early emissions reductions needed to limit the growing stock of CO2 in the atmosphere, and to make it possible to reach net-zero emissions from the energy and industrial systems by mid-century.

Achieving net-zero CO2 emissions from the energy and industrial systems will require rapid improvements in energy efficiency combined with the rapid decarbonization of power and the gradual electrification of as much of the economy as possible[3], mainly light-duty road transport, manufacturing, and a significant part of residential cooking, heating and cooling. In the Energy Transitions Commission’s first report—Better Energy, Greater Prosperity—published in April 2017, we focused on these challenges. In particular, we demonstrated that dramatic reductions in the cost of renewable electricity generation and of energy storage options now make it possible to plan for cost-competitive power systems which are nearly entirely dependent on wind and solar (e.g. at 85-90%)[4].

However, to reach a fully decarbonized economy, we must also reduce and eventually eliminate emissions from what we have labelled the “harder-to-abate” sectors in heavy industry (in particular cement, steel and chemicals) and heavy-duty transport (heavy-duty road transport, shipping and aviation). These sectors currently account for 10Gt (30%) of total global CO2 emissions, but, on current trends, their emissions could account for 16Gt by 2050 and a growing share of remaining emissions as the rest of the economy decarbonizes[5]. To date, many national strategies—as set out in Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to the Paris agreement—focus little attention on these sectors.

Over the last year, the ETC has therefore focused on defining a path to net-zero CO2 emissions in the harder-to-abate sectors[6]. The good news is that this is technically possible by mid-century at a cost to the economy of less than 0.5% of global GDP with a minor impact on consumer living standards. The technologies required to achieve this decarbonization already exist: several still need to reach commercial viability; but we do not need to assume fundamental and currently unknown research breakthroughs to be confident that net- zero carbon emissions can be reached. Moreover, the cost of decarbonization can be very significantly reduced by making better use of carbon-intensive materials (through greater materials efficiency and recycling) and by constraining demand growth for carbon-intensive transport (through greater logistics efficiency and modal shift).

  • 1. IPCC (2018), Global warming of 1.5 ̊C
  • 2. If the world is to be net-zero CO2 emissions by mid-century, negative emissions from the land use sector will therefore be needed during the transition period to compensate for remaining emissions from the energy and industrial systems in the 2050s. 
  • 3. The pace of electrification will need to be adapted to the pace of power decarbonization, as explained on page 23 of the full report.
  • 4. Energy Transitions Commission (2017), Better Energy, Greater Prosperity
  • 5. IEA (2017), Energy Technology Perspectives
  • 6. Throughout this report, the ETC presents quantifications whose aim is to identify likely orders of magnitude that can inform policy and investment, rather than develop a scenario and suggest that precise prediction is possible. In particular, the ETC’s illustrative pathway assesses the implications for the energy system of an illustrative mix of supply-side and demand-side decarbonization solutions by mid-century. 

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