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How Realistic is the Net Zero Goal by 2050?

We are in the midst of a climate emergency, given the amount of extreme weather we've witnessed in recent years, from Australian bushfires to flooding in the United Kingdom. The scientific data is clear: human-caused greenhouse gas emissions are causing climate change. When fossil fuels are used to meet our energy demands, carbon dioxide is released. Carbon dioxide is the most significant greenhouse gas, yet it is not the only one. As a result, the phrase ‘carbon emissions’ is frequently being used to refer to all greenhouse gas emissions. ‘Net-zero’ has become a rallying cry for action on climate change since world leaders met in Paris in 2015 and pledged to strive to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. In order to have a reasonable chance of meeting the Paris goal, the world must reduce carbon emissions to the point where greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere do not grow any further after 2050.

 

What does net zero mean? 

The term net-zero refers to striking a balance between carbon emission and carbon absorption in the atmosphere. This equilibrium – or net-zero – will be reached when the quantity of carbon we add to the atmosphere equals the amount we remove. To achieve net-zero emissions, reductions in emissions from residences, transportation, agriculture, and industry will be required. To put it another way, these industries will be required to reduce the amount of carbon they emit into the environment. However, in other domains, like aviation, it will be too difficult or expensive to eliminate emissions. These ‘residual’ emissions will need to be removed from the atmosphere: either by changing how we use our land so it can absorb more carbon dioxide or by being extracted directly through technologies known as carbon capture, usage, and storage. Zero emissions mean no Carbon Dioxide, Methane, Nitrous Oxide, or other greenhouse gasses are released into the atmosphere. While some greenhouse gasses are still released when net-zero emissions are achieved, these are offset by taking an equivalent quantity of greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere and permanently storing it in soil, plants, or materials. Because completely eliminating some sources of emissions would be excessively expensive or disruptive, reaching net-zero emissions is seen as more realistic than achieving zero emissions on a national basis.

 

Is Net-Zero 2050 possible and how much will it cost? 

The Paris Agreement, a legally binding international pact on climate change reached at COP21 in 2015, has been ratified by more than 190 countries. By the end of this century, the agreement intends to keep global temperatures below 2°C above pre-industrial levels. The year 2050 was also seen as the first credible deadline for achieving net-zero emissions, reconciling the pressing urgency to act with the inevitable economic consequences. It is a lofty goal that will necessitate considerable adjustments over the next ten years (not only by 2050) if countries are to achieve 'net-zero’ carbon dioxide emissions by the middle of the century. If we ignore the influence of Covid-19 for a moment, we can see that this decline is largely attributable to a shift in the way we generate energy. We will, however, need to adapt how we utilize energy in our daily lives. Reaching net-zero emissions by 2050 will not be cheap. A trillion dollars would have to be invested in the cause. The headline statistic in McKinsey's recent analysis of the costs of reaching net-zero emissions between now and 2050 is a startling $9.2 trillion per year. This amounts to a total investment of $275 trillion in energy assets and land-use systems spanning from agriculture to forestry.

These figures are significantly higher than previous estimates, indicating the magnitude of the problem. They may appear much greater when compared to the scale of the global economy, accounting for between 6% and nearly 9% of world GDP. However, the more one looks at this particular set of trillions of dollars, the smaller the figures become to achieve the goal of the clean energy transition. It is evident that failing to aim for net-zero is not an option. The costs of catastrophic climate change if left unchecked will be substantially higher than the price of achieving net-zero, according to some estimates: several trillions of pounds. In the end, it's impossible to put a price on the benefits of obtaining a net zero. It isn't only about lowering pollution. It's also about improving people's quality of life: cleaner air and water, warmer and healthier homes, cleaner transportation, greener landscapes, and better wildlife habitats. 

 

What technologies are needed to achieve this goal? 

Net-zero emissions would necessitate significant changes in energy production and use, as well as increased greenhouse gas removal from the environment. There are four basic solutions for achieving net-zero emissions that are most feasible:

1. Produce electricity without releasing any pollutants into the environment. Wind, solar, nuclear, and water power, combined with developments in electricity storage, can provide a significant portion of the country's electricity with minimum CO2 emissions. To ensure that electricity is constantly accessible, other low-carbon energy sources can be employed in conjunction with these power sources.

2. Instead of fossil fuels, use electricity to power vehicles and equipment. Many major sources of greenhouse gas emissions can be replaced by electricity-powered equipment. Switching to electric automobiles and trucks, as well as heating buildings with electricity, would significantly reduce emissions.

3. Increase the efficiency of your energy usage. Emissions can be reduced greatly through more efficient technology and processes that consume less energy. Electricity boosts efficiency in several cases. Additionally, "smart" technology that detects when energy is required and when it is not proving to be an aid in optimizing electricity generation and consumption thereby, reducing wastage of electricity.

4. Reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. To compensate for emissions that are too costly or difficult to avoid, CO2 must be removed from the atmosphere and permanently stored. This can be accomplished using technologies that absorb CO2 directly from the air and hold it, preventing it from reentering the atmosphere. CO2 is already removed from the atmosphere by plants and soils, and certain land management practices can boost their capacity to absorb and store more CO2.

 

Existing technology can enable all of these methods, but in order to reach net-zero emissions worldwide by 2050, they must be adopted quickly and on a massive scale. This will necessitate new policies and investments, as well as careful consideration of the associated social and economic trade-offs. Government, industry, and individuals will all be required to participate and commit. More innovation can help to improve technology solutions while also lowering expenses.