Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the main driver of climate change and the greenhouse gas most intimately integrated into global economies and daily lifestyles. Slowly, the world is transforming its energy system from one dominated by burning fossil fuels to one with net zero CO2 emissions in a process of deep decarbonization.
This energy transition is key to mitigating climate change, protecting human health and revitalizing economies. Deep decarbonization will require examining and reconceptualizing what national academies of science, engineering, and medicine see as sectoral interactions and systems impacts; technology research, development and large-scale deployment; social, institutional and behavioral dimensions, in particular equity; and the coordination and sequencing of policies at the local, state and federal levels.
What is “deep decarbonization”? It refers to phasing out carbon emitting fuels, promoting more sustainable alternatives as a proactive long-term strategy towards independence from fossil fuels. It will be necessary to reduce the amount of carbon released on a sector-by-sector basis, building on a plethora of technological revolutions in power generation, cars, buildings, shipping, agriculture, aviation and ‘steel. These sectors account for approximately 80% of global emissions.
The question is: will enough countries meet their 2030 targets in a way that will help them achieve zero emissions by 2070?
The World Economic Forum warns that deep decarbonization does not require natural gas and fuel-efficient vehicles, but carbon-free electricity and electric vehicles charged on the carbon-free electricity grid. This deeper transformation, they say, “unlike the low-hanging fruits envisioned by many politicians today,” offers the only path to climate security to stay below the 2°C limit. switching from coal to gas, or more efficient gas vehicles, “we risk putting ourselves in a high carbon trap”.
In a number of sectors, zero carbon options are ready, available and at or near the cost of alternative sources of carbon emissions. There are clear, albeit challenging, pathways to net zero CO2 emissions in the power sector using a combination of renewables, energy storage and carbon sequestration. In more challenging sectors like steel and cement manufacturing, technology options exist but require vigorous policy action to reduce costs and increase scale.
To be successful, the deployment of these technologies must be coupled with demand management and process changes that must include the shift to a circular economy in manufacturing. Supply chain decarbonization remains one of the most pressing opportunities for business to champion.
A report, Accelerating Decarbonization of the U.S. Energy Systemidentifies key technological and socio-economic goals that must be achieved to put the United States on a path to net zero carbon emissions by 2050. The report presents a strategic plan outlining critical near-term actions to the first decade (2021-2030) of this 30-year effort, including ways to support the communities that will be most affected by the transition.
Initiatives that describe deep decarbonization methods
The Deep Decarbonization Pathways (DPDP) initiative aims to help governments and non-state actors make choices that put economies and societies on track to achieve a carbon-neutral world by the second half of the century. The collaboration of 36 national research teams from leading research institutions in the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitting countries aims to help governments and non-state actors make choices that put economies and societies on track to achieve a carbon neutral world by the second half of the century.
Together, they strive to build and open to debate ambitious and realistic decarbonization trajectories, country by country, showing the main drivers and their effects by 2050. By making their common methodology available to all, more of governments or actors can build and propose their own and develop national expertise and international scientific knowledge.
The 3 pillars of deep decarbonization, as defined by the Deep Decarbonization Pathways, are:
- energetic efficiency
- decarbonization of electricity
- switching to electric power sources at the end of fuel consumption
Other DPP recommendations include:
- Doubling electricity supply to allow for increased electrification (e.g. switching from gasoline-powered vehicles to electric cars). This electricity supply must be generated by clean energy.
- Step away from liquid fuels and eliminate coal addiction.
- New energy supplies are expected to come primarily from wind, solar and hydroelectricity.
- Storage must be an essential part of decarbonization.
The 2050 Pathways platform is another multi-stakeholder initiative; it was launched at COP22 to help countries seeking to develop long-term, net-zero GHG, climate-resilient and sustainable development pathways. Designed as a space for collective problem-solving, the platform builds a broader constellation of cities, states and businesses engaged in their own long-term low-emissions planning and in support of national strategies.
Final Thoughts on Deep Decarbonization
Geopolitical risks play an important role in the advent of renewable energy mainly due to energy security, competition from rare metals and trade disputes that are being pushed forward, which are driving the transition to renewable energy. Yet renewable energy has a significant impact on geopolitical risks that are driven by global economic growth, rising fossil fuel prices and technological innovations.
It is important to note that renewable energies are able to accommodate new powers in the international political system. This aspect of deep decarbonization is useful for international peace and can also reduce geopolitical risks. Therefore, the transition to renewable energy is beneficial for energy supply and security and governments around the world should encourage the private sector to participate in renewable energy projects, including by offering special incentives for this purpose.
Circular economy models, economic resilience, social frameworks and community empowerment can become integrated elements of deep decarbonization. If sustainability could be approached as a cross-cutting theme beyond politics and with a multi-scale lens, decentralized renewables could become mainstream.
As the urgency for climate action intensifies, for example, local governments and stakeholders are developing pathways to deep decarbonization at the local level and committing to scale greenhouse gas reductions. of the community from 80 to 100% by 2050 or earlier. Emerging technical pathways to deep local decarbonization appear to focus on 5 priority sectors: power, buildings, transportation, waste, and carbon sinks and storage. They also develop innovative strategies tailored to the region’s specific circumstances, needs and priorities.
Today, governments of all sizes around the world are striving to ensure that fossil fuels represent only a tiny part of the energy mix. Admittedly, this is an incremental process, defined by an inertia of technologies, institutions, and behaviors that act as a barrier to systemic renewable energy transformations and perpetuate reliance on fossil fuel-based infrastructure.
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