Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the largest driver of climate change and is the greenhouse gas most intimately integrated into global economies and daily lifestyles. Slowly, the world is transforming its energy system from one dominated by fossil fuel combustion to one with net-zero emissions of CO2 in a process of deep decarbonization.
This energy transition is critical to mitigating climate change, protecting human health, and revitalizing economies. Deep decarbonization will require examination and reconceptualization of what the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine say are sectoral interactions and systems impacts; technology research, development, and deployment at scale; social, institutional, and behavioral dimensions, particularly equity; and policy coordination and sequencing at local, state, and federal levels.
What is “deep decarbonization,” anyway? It refers to the gradual elimination of carbon-emitting fuels, favoring more sustainable alternatives as a long-term, proactive strategy toward independence from fossil fuels. It will be necessary to decrease the amount of carbon released sector-by-sector, drawing upon a plethora of technological revolutions in electricity generation, cars, buildings, shipping, agriculture, aviation, and steel. These sectors account for about 80% of world emissions.
The question is: Will enough countries achieve their 2030 targets in a way that helps them to get to zero emissions by 2070 — full deep decarbonization?
The World Economic Forum cautions that deep decarbonization requires not natural gas and fuel-efficient vehicles but zero-carbon electricity and electric vehicles charged on the zero-carbon electricity grid. This more profound transformation, they say, “unlike the low-hanging fruit eyed today by many politicians,” offers the only path to climate safety to stay below the 2ºC limit. By pursuing coal to gas, or more efficient gas-burning vehicles, “we risk putting ourselves into a high-carbon trap.”
In a number of sectors, zero-carbon options are ready, available, and are at or near enough the cost of the alternative carbon-emitting sources. There are clear, although challenging, pathways to net-zero CO2 emissions in the power sector using a combination of renewable energy, energy storage, and carbon sequestration. In more challenging sectors like steel and cement manufacturing, technology options exist but require robust policy action to reduce the cost and increase scale.
To be successful, the deployment of these technologies must be paired with demand management and process changes which need to include moving to a circular economy in manufacturing. Supply chain decarbonization remains one of the most pressing opportunities needing to be championed by corporations.
A report, Accelerating Decarbonization of the United States Energy System, identifies key technological and socio-economic goals that must be achieved to put the US on the path to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. The report presents a policy blueprint outlining critical near-term actions for the first decade (2021-2030) of this 30-year effort, including ways to support communities that will be most impacted by the transition.
Initiatives that Outline Deep Decarbonization Methods
The Deep Decarbonization Pathways (DPDP) initiative aims at helping governments and non-state actors make choices that put economies and societies on track to reach a carbon neutral world by the second half of the century. The collaboration of 36 in-country research teams from leading research institutions of 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 reach a carbon neutral world by the second half of the century.
Together, they are striving to build and open to debate ambitious and realistic decarbonization pathways, country by country, showing key drivers and their effects by 2050. As they make their common methodology available to all, more governments or stakeholders can build and propose its own pathways and develop in-country expertise and international scientific knowledge.
The 3 pillars of deep decarbonization, as defined by the Deep Decarbonization Pathways, are:
- energy efficiency
- decarbonization of electricity
- end-of-fuel-use switching to electric-powered sources
Further recommendations by the DPP include:
- Doubling of the electricity supply to allow for increased electrification (for example, transitioning from gasoline-powered vehicles to electric cars). This electricity supply needs to be generated by clean energy.
- Move away from liquid fuels and elimination of reliance on coal.
- New energy supplies should come from mostly wind, solar, and hydropower.
- Storage needs to be an essential part of decarbonization.
The 2050 Pathways Platform is another multi-stakeholder initiative; it was launched at COP22 to support 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 companies engaged in long-term low-emissions planning of their own and in support of national strategies.
Final Thoughts about Deep Decarbonization
Geopolitical risks play an important role in the advent of renewable energy primarily because of the energy security, rare metal competition, and trade disputes that are put forth, which stimulate the transition to renewable energy. Yet renewable energy has a significant impact on geopolitical risks that are driven by global economic growth, rising fossil fuels prices, and technological innovations.
It’s important to note that renewable energy is capable of accommodating new powers in the international political system. This aspect of deep decarbonization is useful for international peace and may also reduce geopolitical risks. Therefore, the transition to renewable energy is beneficial to the energy supply and security and governments of the world should encourage the private sector to participate in renewable energy projects, especially by providing special incentives for this purpose.
Circular economy models, economic resilience, social frameworks, and community empowerment can become integrated elements of deep decarbonization. If it would be possible to approach sustainability as a cross-cutting theme beyond politics and from a multi-scaled lens, decentralized renewable energy could become commonplace.
As the urgency for climate action heightens, for example, local governments and stakeholders are developing pathways towards deep decarbonization at the local level and committing to community-wide greenhouse gas reductions of 80–100% by 2050 or earlier. Emerging technical pathways to local deep decarbonization seem to be focusing on 5 priority sectors: electricity, buildings, transportation, waste, and carbon sinks and storage. They’re also developing innovative strategies particular to the area’s specific circumstances, needs, and priorities.
Right now, governments of all sizes around the world are working toward fossil energy being a vanishingly small part of the energy mix. Certainly, this is an incremental process, defined by an inertia of technologies, institutions, and behaviors that form a barrier to systemic renewable energy transformations and which perpetuate reliance on fossil fuel-based infrastructures.
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