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

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.”  


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

Comments (4)

  1. C. Alvin Scott says:

    Hello, If it was possible to get to net zero under existing plans then it could have been done several years ago.

    I say again on there is Hydrogen innovation which would make the change to clean energy far less costly than present routes.

    The problem for those making these decisions and in and around the Energy world is that these new innovations turn things upside down.

    The choice for these people is clear, change systems which developed due to the Fossil Fuels era or increase costs on amending those systems and allow future generations to pay an ever increasing price.

    e.g. Geely/Volvo/ LEVC = electric London Taxi, it has a petrol engine generator as a Range extender, I asked for support to carry out initial modelling of my concept for a new Hydrogen fueled turbine as generator.
    This would result in small battery pack, lower weight, lower cost, always running on Zero emissions.

    No need for hundreds of charge points—no need for increased generating capacity ….. No need for massive back-up batteries by the thousands.

    Yet stifled/blocked from funding whilst low carbon petrol = 12 mill average per year from APC UK … not even 500,000 for initial modelling of a new engine that just might decarbonise UK transport in short time at exceptional low cost.

    Gone to Berlin Technical University where there is support from R&D to carry out initial modelling, The view being "Lets take a look"

  2. Colin Matthews says:

    So Alvin Scott, where does your hydration come from? How is it manufactured and what is the energy balance from manufacture to use in your turbine? Also in burning hydrogen in a turbine what is the NOx output of that turbine and how does that affect Air quality? How much hydrogen do you need to carry onboard to do a days work? How many miles In the days work In. question? I am interested to know how your system works as a complete energy balance.

  3. David Dundas says:

    The UK challenge to meet net zero carbon by 2050 is a huge task, but most studies focus on how to better use our energy which is very important, however it is arguable that most of our energy needs to be supplied by zero carbon electricity by 2050, with the help of heat pumps to extract energy from the air and ground. If you consider the latest data from BEIS for 2018 the total energy production in that year was 2,234 TWh when the total electricity generated was only 351.2 TWh of which zero carbon renewables and nuclear were 182 TWh or just 8% of all the UK’s energy generation, so we have to increase our zero carbon electricity from 182 to 2,234 TWh or more than 12 times. in 2018 renewables generated 116 TWh of electricity; due to the limited space on land and sea, we might be able to increase renewable electricty 5 times, to say 600 TWh by 2050, but that still leaves a deficit of 1,634 TWh that we must produce by other zero carbon electricity, and the only other source is nuclear. To put this in perspective, Hinkley Point C nuclear power station will produce 3.2 GW or 28 TWh running 24/7 every day of the year which is unrealistic, and a load factor of 60% should be used, reducing the output to about 17 TWh. So if the new nuclear generation was by Hinkley Point sized power stations we would need to build nearly 100 of them to be up and running by 2050. Fortunately there are other nuclear alternatives in the form of Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) that could be mass produced in factories and shipped to site by heavy road transport. If they burned Thorium instead of Uranium they would produce far less radioactive waste, and if they were fueled by molten salt, they would not require expensive high pressure equipment. This kind of reactor has been run for many years, but it does not produce plutonium that the military required. The other advantages of SMRs is that they can be used to retrofit existing fossil fuel power stations, saving the cost of the steam turbines, generators a power distribution equipment that is already installed.
    While Project Dowload touches on these suggestions, it does not focus on this core task to transform electicity generation to zero carbon.

  4. Andy Kadir-Buxton says:

    A 10 kilometre deep lined and capped water well can convert all power stations to clean energy, a cut of 30% in CO2 emissions. A 20% cut would come from electrification of all vehicles. 41% would come from coating all buildings in Starlite. Aircraft and Ships could halve emissions by using fuel mixed with water using an ultrasonic dibber. Aircraft account for 6% of CO2, while shipping accounts for 4.5%, so another 5.25% can be saved. The total savings would then be 96.25%. Improving soil using biochar would then cut CO2 in the atmosphere by locking it in the ground. Cement based on magnesium silicates, not only requires much less heating, it also absorbs large amounts of CO2 as it hardens, making it carbon negative.
    It can all be paid for by eliminating mental illness using the Kadir-Buxton Method.

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