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Zero Emissions At Zero Cost? CleanTech Leads The Way

A new McKinsey report outlines a pathway to achieve EU zero emissions by 2050. It’s all about cleantech.

The speed of European Union (EU) decarbonization efforts will depend on the availability of mature technology and the ability to scale supply chains. Most of the required technologies are available, but accelerated innovation will be critical to drive down transition costs toward zero emissions. That’s the thesis behind a new McKinsey & Company report about optimal decisions to achieve EU carbon neutrality by 2050.

The report, “How the European Union Could Achieve Net-Zero Emissions at Net-Zero Cost,” lays out a societally cost-optimal pathway that the EU-27 could adopt to achieve the emissions targets of net-zero cost and a net gain of 5 million jobs. The report’s key findings include:

  • Europe can reach net-zero emissions at net-zero cost.
  • More than half the emissions reductions could be achieved with mature and early-adoption technologies.
  • Energy systems and land use would need to be reconfigured.
  • Nearly €800 billion must be invested per year; cost savings would offset increased capital spending.
  • Policy interventions would be required to stimulate investment.
  • Energy security and competitiveness could increase.

From now until 2030, 75% of abatement would be achieved by expanding mature and early-adoption technologies such as heat pumps in buildings, heat cascading in industry, and EVs in transportation. By 2030, 64% of the European Union’s emissions reduction would be achieved by large-scale electrification and increases in energy efficiency, accounting for 47% and 17%, respectively. Demand-side measures and circularity would reduce emissions an additional 15%. Hydrogen would contribute another 13%. The remainder would come from ramping up the use of biomass, land-use changes, and other innovations. Toward 2040, electrification opportunities would approach their maximum uptake, and other measures would become the focus.

By 2050, 45% of the EU’s total emissions would be abated by switching from fossil fuels to electrification, and another 30% would be eliminated by using hydrogen, biomass, and CCS.By 2050, these mature technologies would achieve maximum market penetration, contributing 60% of the required abatement for climate neutrality. Demonstrated but not yet mature technologies like Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) would need to be rapidly scaled after 2030 to reduce emissions by an additional 25 to 30%. Solutions still in R&D, such as direct air capture, would be required to abate the remaining 10 to 15%.

In December 2019, the European Commission introduced an ambitious proposal to make the bloc climate-neutral by 2050. But gaps existed. How would these emission-reduction goals be met? How would each sector and member state should contribute to the desired emissions reductions? What would achieving those reductions cost?

The McKinsey report describes the least costly pathway among the many options the research team identified. The chosen path illustrates the technical feasibility of reducing the European Union’s emissions 55% by 2030 compared to 1990 levels. It also shows that decarbonizing Europe can have broad economic benefits, including GDP growth, cost-of-living reductions, and job creation.

The ease with which each country can reduce emissions will be determined by local climate, CO2 storage opportunities, local agriculture practices, and the amount of land available for reforestation, wind farms, and solar plants. These factors will also modulate which decarbonization measures will be the most cost-optimal.

zero emissions

Graphic provided by McKinsey & Company

Transforming the 5 GHG-Emitting Sectors

In 2017, the EU-27 countries emitted 3.9 GtCO2e, including 0.3 GtCO2e of negative emissions. Although this accounts for only 7% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, if the EU could achieve climate neutrality, it could serve as a blueprint for other regions as well as to encourage other countries to take bolder action.

Five sectors emit the bulk of the European Union’s greenhouse gases:

  • Transportation: 28%
  • Industry: 26%
  • Power: 23%
  • Buildings: 13%
  • Agriculture: 13%

The McKinsey report delineates their determination of cost-optimal pathway by sector, region, technology, and energy/ land-use system.

Transportation: This sector would approach climate neutrality by 2045. EVs are already in early adoption, but it will take some 10 years to set up supply chains to support a switch to 100% EV sales, from mining the raw materials for batteries to assembling EVs.

Industry: The most expensive sector to decarbonize, industry would need some technology that is still under development. As a result, it would reach net-zero by 2050. Even then, the sector would continue to generate some residual emissions from activities such as waste management and heavy manufacturing, which would have to be offset.

Power: Because wind and solar power generation technologies are already available at scale, power would be the quickest sector to decarbonize, reaching net-zero emissions by the mid-2040s. The demand for power would double as other sectors switch to electricity and green hydrogen, requiring renewables production and storage capacity to be rapidly scaled.

Buildings: Most of the technology required to decarbonize the buildings sector is already available. However, renovating large portions of the European Union’s building stock is a massive undertaking. The share of dwellings using renewable heating sources would need to increase to 100% from just 35% today. Gas usage in buildings would also need to fall by more than half. The buildings sector would reach net-zero in the late 2040s.

Agriculture: Using more efficient farming practices could reduce agricultural emissions. But it’s by far the hardest sector to abate because more than half of agriculture emissions come from raising animals for food and can’t be reduced without significant changes in meat consumption or technological breakthroughs. Like industry, offsetting agriculture emissions with negative emissions in other sectors and increasing natural carbon sinks would be required.

EU member states would achieve climate goals collectively, so they will be able pool their advantages and lower transition costs. For example, countries with more abundant solar resources or natural carbon sinks could help other countries offset their emissions at a lower cost than if they had to reduce emissions locally using CCS. If member states pursued reduction targets individually rather than in aggregate, the transition cost would increase by roughly €25 per tCO2e, the report indicates.

zero emissions

Graphic provided by McKinsey & Company

Cleantech Can Decarbonize Europe & Lead To Zero Emissions

Today, the European Union meets 75% of its primary energy demand with fossil fuels. On the cost-optimal pathway, most coal consumption would be eliminated by 2030, and oil and gas consumption would drop to less than 10% by 2050.

  • Renewable power would satisfy more than 80% of primary energy demand by 2050. Seventy-five% of renewable energy would be used directly as electricity.
  • Another 25% would be converted into green hydrogen to replace fossil fuels in subsectors such as steel production, long-haul trucking, aviation, and shipping.
  • The power sector would become the central switchboard of the EU energy system, creating and channeling renewable power into other sectors.

Meeting this renewable power demand would require increasing solar capacity from 20 gigawatts (GW) a year to 50 GW by 2050, and wind from 15 GW a year to 30 GW a year by 2050. The EU would also need to triple the interconnections among its power grids by 2030 and increase its battery storage capacity to 25 GW by 2030, and to more than 150 GW by 2050.

Reaching net-zero would require investing an estimated €28 trillion in clean technologies and techniques over the next 30 years. Solar panels are a good example of a solution that has become much cheaper because of continued innovation and the industrialization of production. In the next 20 years, EVs and electrolyzers could achieve similar price reductions. About €23 trillion of this investment—an average of €800 billion a year—would come from redirecting investments that would otherwise have funded carbon-intensive technologies. This amounts to roughly 25% of the annual capital investments now made in the European Union, or 4% of the current EU GDP. Stakeholders in the EU would also have to allocate an additional €5.4 trillion (an average of €180 billion a year) to clean technologies and techniques.

Of that €5.4 trillion, about €1.5 trillion would be invested in the buildings sector (29%), €1.8 trillion would be used for power (33%), €410 billion for industry (8%), €76 billion for agriculture (about 1 %), and €32 billion in transportation (less than 1%). About €1.5 trillion (28%) would fund infrastructure to improve energy transmission and distribution in all sectors.

Although implementing clean technology would require additional investment, it would ultimately lower operating costs. From 2021 to 2050, the EU would save an average of €130 billion annually in total system operating costs. By 2050, these measures would reduce total system operating expenditures by €260 billion per year, more than 1.5% of the current EU GDP. Most of these savings toward zero emissions would be in transportation.

zero emissions

Graphic provided by McKinsey & Company


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Written By

Carolyn Fortuna (they, them), Ph.D., is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavy Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla. Please follow Carolyn on Twitter and Facebook.


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