According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), we need to halve carbon emissions by 2030 and achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 to avoid climate catastrophe. The IPCC set that deadline in 2018 — we now have 8 years left.
Just 12 years (since 2018) doesn’t seem enough to reverse over a century of environmental damage, but experts say it’s doable if we act quickly. The rate of growth of emissions has slowed down since 2019. It’s a good sign that our efforts are working, but it’s still going to be a gargantuan task.
Hearing all the doom and gloom about climate change can get overwhelming, but you shouldn’t avoid the issue altogether. The key is to know more; get privy to the details. In this article, we’ll discuss the challenges of achieving a zero-carbon future. But first, we need to understand what a “zero-carbon future” means.
Zero-carbon and carbon-neutral: What’s the difference?
Although similar, the terms zero-carbon and carbon-neutral refer to different things. Carbon neutrality can be achieved by balancing out the carbon we release into the atmosphere. To be zero-carbon, no carbon should be emitted in the first place. Furthermore, net-zero carbon is synonymous with zero-carbon, but not with net-zero emissions. If the future human civilisation runs purely on renewable energy sources such as solar and wind, then it has achieved zero-carbon status, at least in its energy.
Is a zero-carbon future possible?
It’s important to understand that while carbon neutral is truly achievable, being completely zero-carbon is not. There are activities that will continue to emit carbon, no matter how small. That being said, there are many aspects of human life where zero-carbon is achievable, such as in the energy we use. While we can’t make a “zero-carbon future” happen in a literal sense, we can strive for a low-carbon era.
Striving for zero-carbon will require an exorbitant amount of money. Governments and corporations will need to spend a lot more to pull their own weight. A study from McKinsey found we need to increase our spending by $3.5 trillion a year, every year, for a chance at carbon neutrality in 2050.
This means our leaders have to be willing and capable to invest a lot of money in decarbonisation efforts. On the corporate side, making commitments and hitting them is easier given the financial returns and business longevity they expect to get out of it. But things are a lot more complicated on the government side. Wealthy countries, most of which are the top emitters, have made commitments but most of them are failing to deliver. Another problem is that developing countries simply can’t afford to go green.
Transforming core systems
Most of the world still runs on systems that emit a lot of carbon. Infrastructure, transportation, and power generation are the hardest to change among these systems. In 2020, these three alone contributed 73% of the global carbon emissions.
- Cities, infrastructure, and buildings - As our population grows, cities are expected to grow bigger and denser. Transforming a megacity into a green metropolis as it continues to expand is going to be a Herculean task.
- Power generation - Replacing current methods of power generation with ones that can use zero-carbon sources is no walk in the park. Renewable energy sources are available, but the technology and infrastructure required to allow countries to rely on them are still in development.
- Ditching fossil fuels - transportation has been primarily powered by fossil fuels. In total, transportation contributes 23% of global carbon emissions. The industry is exploring alternative fuel sources but they are yet to be viable for larger-scale use. In the meantime, the industry relies on increasing efficiency to lower its emissions. Ocean vessels, for example, use weather routing to optimise their voyage, reducing fuel consumption.
When faced with a task as difficult as fighting climate change, everything will feel like a challenge. Politics, for instance, has a significant impact on every aspect of humanity’s efforts. But don’t think the contributions of individuals are for naught. Collectively, people can reduce global emissions by as much as 36%. So, help in every small way you can and we might just hit our goals.
Article contributed by writer and editor Bash Sarmiento