Report: Existing climate solutions, not innovations, crucial to meeting net-zero

Humanity will be able to reach a net-zero world by 2050 - as recommended by the IPCC in its landmark report on climate change - using existing, established technologies and practices, a major new scientific study has concluded.

Scaling up renewable energy generation is listed in the analysis as one of the most important climate solutions of our lifetime.  Image: Project Drawdown 

Scaling up renewable energy generation is listed in the analysis as one of the most important climate solutions of our lifetime.  Image: Project Drawdown 

The study, published today (3 March), forms the first comprehensive update to Project Drawdown’s list of climate solutions since it was first published in 2017.

The NGO’s research centres around what it will take to achieve ‘Drawdown’ – the point at which greenhouse gas (GHG) levels in the atmosphere peak and begin declining – in terms of policy, business, community and individual action.

Drawdown’s first comprehensive analysis was based around the Paris Agreement, listing refrigerant management, onshore wind and reducing food waste as the top three climate solutions. The updated version details the changes necessary to meet the IPCC’s call to climate action, made in its landmark report on global warming of 1.5C vs 2C above pre-industrial levels – an assertion that has seen the rise of net-zero national, state and business-level pledges accelerate rapidly across the world.

According to the updated report, it would be “feasible” to reach Drawdown by the early 2040s and global net-zero by 2050 without the use of any technologies and practices which do not currently exist – so long as simultaneous transitions towards stopping emissions at the source and sequestering them are made quickly.

The report draws this conclusion from research around five key changes, all of which it states will need to be made “greatly and rapidly”:  

  • Scaling up renewable energy generation and investing in energy efficiency (saving between 197.8 and 443.7 gigatons of GHG emissions between 2020 and 2050)
  • Improving refrigerant management and switching to low-emission alternatives (saving between 101.3 and 208.3 gigatons of GHG emissions between 2020 and 2050)
  • Dramatically improving energy performance in the built environment, with a particular focus on cities (saving between 73.7 and 141.3 gigatons of GHG emissions between 2020 and 2050)
  • Shifting to “highly-efficient” low-carbon transport (saving between 51.2 and 104.2 gigatons of GHG emissions between 2020 and 2050)

Analysis of emerging climate solutions such as man-made Carbon Capture, Usage and Storage (CCUS) found that none ranked higher than these five facets. Project Drawdown ranks solutions in terms of both GHG avoidance and sequestering capabilities. Upfront cost and life-cycle savings are also assessed but do not contribute to ranking.

“Certainly, more solutions are needed and emerging, but there is no reason—or time—to wait on innovation,” the report states. “Now is better than new, and society is well equipped to begin that transformation today.”

However, it provides a word of warning – that the date at which Earth reaches Drawdown will only fall within the early 2040s if political and business will is shown at a global scale. Otherwise, the report concludes, atmospheric GHG levels could rise annually through 2060 or later, jeopardising progress towards 2050 and pre-2050 net-zero ambitions.

“The tools we need are here, today, and can be deployed at scale - but we need to use them all – dozens and dozens of solutions in different sectors, working in parallel,” Project Drawdown’s executive director Dr. Jonathan Foley said.

“Only then does the physics and economics work. All that is lacking is the political will and leadership to make it happen. While climate change can often feel hopeless, this work shows us a better world is truly possible, with solutions we have in hand today. But we need to get started as soon as possible and dramatically step up our efforts.”  

All-in

Dr Foley’s call to action echoes that recently given by IPCC working group III co-chair Jim Skea at edie’s Sustainability Leaders Forum.

In a keynote speech delivered to more than 600 senior professionals from across the sustainability, energy and CSR professions, Skea warned that politicising certain climate solutions – or prioritising any one solution as a “silver bullet” – would lead to a response insufficient to meeting a 1.5C pathway.

He said: “Action is needed absolutely everywhere. There is no excuse... The most overused word in climate policy is ‘or’. There is no ‘or’.”

Indeed, much criticism of the UK Government’s own net-zero target has been centred around its ability to deliver a holistic approach in which sector transitions are joined-up and decisions perceived as hypocritical by green campaigners rendered impossible.

Recent research by Bloomberg NEF found that by embedding sector coupling into net-zero transitions, Europe could reduce emissions from its transport, buildings and industrial sectors by more than 60% through to 2050.

Sarah George



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