Zoning in on Net Zero: A transition that will take a world of change 

Landscape high view

From the role of renewables and hydrogen to clean heating and cooling, we look at the challenges, the solutions and how we can work together to take climate action.

The recent IPCC report served as a stark reminder of the challenge we all face to drive down the current level of annual global emissions. If we want to limit the total rise to 1.5°C with high confidence, then the carbon budget available to us is 300 GtCO2. To put that into perspective, the current level of annual global emissions is around 36 GtCO2, which means if carbon emissions continue at this rate, we will have spent that budget in just nine years. Going beyond that will push the temperature above 1.5°C.  

Never has the global community had such a time-limited, goal-driven and wide-ranging reform agenda to carry out as the net zero challenge. While it’s clear we need to make swift, bold and long-standing changes across all aspects of human activity driving emissions, if we don’t approach it as one interconnected system, we’ll lose precious time. 

Firstly, we need to really understand the sectors that need to decarbonise. Around 73% of global CO2 emissions come from the energy used to power the economy, to create heat and help move people and goods. Second in line at 18% are emissions from our global food system, which covers issues such as deforestation and land given over to agriculture. Next are heavy industries like cement and petrochemicals, which contribute around 5%. Finally, emissions from the waste decomposition in wastewater and landfills account for some 3%. 

These sectors are obviously critical for human society, and will remain so even in a net-zero-impact world. They have developed and evolved over many decades into a collection of interdependent systems, whether technologies, supply chains, markets or policies. There are many vested interests. These systems are obviously structured differently across the world, but all are highly connected. This makes change hard, as it disrupts the status quo. 

Given the complexity and interconnected nature of these sectors, we need to take a ‘whole-systems’ approach rather than targeting one area. For example, the renewable power generation sector has seen tremendous success in the last decade with costs falling significantly for solar panels (85%), onshore wind (56%) and offshore wind (48%). But this is just one part of the puzzle. The next question is how it plugs into the wider energy system. For example, how can it provide cleaner alternatives in transport, heating and certain industrial processes? We need to always be asking how we can harness progress in one area to benefit other sectors. 

And so, over the coming weeks, we’ll be analysing some of the high-level areas the Carbon Trust believes need that whole-systems thinking. These topics are crucial to the transition to net zero, and we’ll be looking at the challenges and solutions, and how they fit into that interconnected world. Look out for insights on: 

  • Renewable scale-up and cost-effective integration – as technologies such as offshore wind continue to see rapid cost reduction, the next crucial frontier is making their integration into the power and wider energy system as cost-effective as possible. 
  • Developing flexible energy systems – as the supply and demand side of global energy systems transitions away from fossil fuel plants, it’s critical that these systems are able to manage this change cost-effectively, securely and flexibly. 
  • Promoting and improving access to clean cooling – with temperature rises driven by climate change and shifts in global dietary patterns, finding ways to balance equal access to cooling for food, medicine and comfort with minimal or no climate impact is vital. 
  • Transitioning to clean heating – while some solutions exist to transition away from current ways of providing heat, such as heat pumps and biomass boilers, there are important challenges around scaling up rapidly in a cost-effective way. 
  • Approaching hydrogen development sustainably – we need to rapidly evolve a more strategic and inclusive approach to hydrogen to ensure it can play a useful and complementary role to aid decarbonisation.
  • Planning for and developing carbon dioxide removal (CDR) solutions – it’s important to develop a CDR strategy that works to keep CO2 emissions in line with ‘acceptable’ temperature rises, supported by a better understanding of how the world’s climate systems respond to CO2 removal. 
  • Just transition – developing an inclusive approach is essential to ensure the equitable sharing of costs and benefits globally as these sectors transition to net zero. 

The driving force behind our blog series is not only to expand on the topics above and provide strategic direction, but also to call on people and organisations worldwide to collaborate with us on solutions for these critical net zero challenges. 

Of course, in making the transition to net zero, it must be a just one, but it will also need to be pragmatic. It’s crucial to appreciate that while the strategy should ultimately help nations and communities find a sustainable path, trade-offs will need to be made – whether that’s cost, political will or social acceptance, for example.

If we don’t work in this big-picture way to overcome the challenges of climate change, we won’t reach the scale of progress we need. The journey to net zero will not be an easy one, and it won’t be perfect. But if we travel the route together, we’ll get there quicker. 

To find out more about the route to net zero, join one of our virtual one-day summits.

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