If the world had a comprehensive plan to address climate change, what would it look like?
That’s an important question, even a crucial question for industry and businesses globally, especially the energy industry. Companies need to plan for significant climate-related action coming in the years and decades ahead.
“The world does have a climate plan – or rather, a lot of plans. There’s a ton of economic and climate models that have been done around various pathways,” said Derek Pankratz, senior research manager with the Center for Integrated Research in Deloitte Services LP.
“The challenge is not so much in knowing what to do. That’s pretty well known, generally. It’s more about reaching scale. You match up science with all these different areas,” he added.
The Paris Agreement of 2015 envisioned countries setting nationally determined contributions toward mitigating climate change and reducing carbon emissions. That hasn’t worked well. Some countries didn’t initially issue NDC goals, others set inadequate NDCs. By a wide margin, most countries are not on track to hit their interim targets by 2030.
‘No Silver Bullet’
“The challenge right now is how quickly we can scale different sources to meet energy needs going forward. A lot of that is electrification downstream,” Pankratz said.
“There’s no silver bullet in addressing climate change. As some people have said, it’s a silver buckshot approach,” he noted.
Two goals dominate current climate plans. First is the Paris Agreement objective of holding total warming under 2 degrees Celsius, from pre-industrial levels. Second is a target of reaching net-zero global greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
Net zero emissions means that all GHGs produced worldwide will be absorbed by a combination of natural and engineered processes, like carbon capture and storage, with no net addition of GHGs to the atmosphere.
The year 2050 wasn’t an entirely random choice. Global-scale climate mitigation almost certainly will require 30 years at a minimum. Reforestation can take 35 years or more, so not everything will happen even in a 30-year timeframe.
Net zero by 2050 is more of a rallying cry than a scientific mandate, noted Steve Rose, senior research economist and technical director in Washington, D.C., for EPRI, a non-advocacy, nonprofit energy and climate scientific research organization.
“When we look at the science and look at the various pathways to holding global temperatures below two degrees Celsius (in global average warming), we see there’s a wide range of possibilities, including net-zero outcomes from the year 2035 to beyond 2100,” Rose said.
Total GHGs are measured by adding CO2 emissions to the effective CO2 equivalent of other GHG gases – methane, nitrous oxide and fluorinated gases, called F-gases. CO2 makes up three-fourths of all GHGs, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
In a 2022 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, global net anthropogenic GHG emissions in 2019 hit 59 billion metric tons, or gigatons. Of that total, fossil fuel combustion and industrial processes accounted for about 64 percent; methane, 18 percent; emissions related to land use, 11 percent; N2O, 5 percent; F-gases, 2 percent.
A problem: GHG emissions probably haven’t peaked yet. The world likely produced more GHGs in 2021 than 2020, when COVID curtailed economic activity. This year is on track to surpass last year for several reasons, including the sharp post-pandemic economic rebound plus higher coal use. Also, scientists are now realizing how much countries and companies have been under-reporting emissions.
It sounds too obvious to have to say, but to reach net-zero emissions, total world GHGs would have to start going down instead of up. China, the world’s largest CO2 emitter, has committed to reach peak carbon emissions some time before 2030.
EVs, Soy, Green Electrons
To see what’s coming in climate action, start with what’s already happening. Gradual changes are following a roll-in, scale-up and roll-off pattern. For instance, the shift to electric vehicles starts with buses, followed by scooters and other two-wheelers, then delivery vans and other light commercial vehicles, then private cars and trucks, then medium- and heavy-duty commercial vehicles.
Buses and two-wheeled vehicles have begun a strong shift to EVs. China has added 500,000 electric buses, Blomberg NEF reported. Sales of private EVs will probably start to scale up within a decade. Someday, exhaust-belching diesel and gas buses will roll off the scene – they’ll disappear.
For a long time, protein choices at Asian restaurants were chicken, beef, pork or shrimp. Then tofu began to roll in as a plant-based alternative. Now restaurants are adding tofu-only entrees, and soon additional plant-based choices like tempeh will appear. At some point, beef will roll off the menu. It’s part of the world moving to plant-based proteins instead of meat, especially livestock.
Industry is steadily going green, Pankratz observed, with some companies working on a net-zero supply chain and many responding to growing pressure from customers and stakeholders, “or they see a business opportunity. They see that we’re moving, in some cases very quickly, toward a more sustainable economy.”
In 2019, about 34 percent of total net anthropogenic GHG emissions came from the energy supply sector; 24 percent from industry; 22 percent from agriculture, forestry and other land use; and 15 percent from transport, according to the IPCC. The rest almost all comes from emissions related to buildings and urbanization.
For reducing GHGs, “I would say the power sector is best positioned in terms of technological options. But policies incentivizing use of low-carbon electricity are needed to make it happen,” Rose said.
“Industrial activity also has some good possibilities, but it also has some difficulty to decarbonize areas,” he added. “There are also opportunities for industry to fuel-switch. That could be to electricity – low-carbon electricity – or it could be low-carbon fuels.”
Pankratz said decarbonizing the electric grid will be based on “having a lot of green electrons available,” in terms of scaling up renewable energy and other low-carbon power sources.
Industry is steadily going green, he observed, with some companies working on a net-zero supply chain and many responding to growing pressure from customers and stakeholders, “or they see a business opportunity. They see that we’re moving, in some cases very quickly, toward a more sustainable economy.”
Concrete and steel production pose significant challenges for GHG reduction because they’re extensively used in building and especially difficult to decarbonize. Greener power and more efficient production processes could improve that.
Also, “you can think of substitutes to traditional construction materials. People may be reluctant initially. You’d need to have some sort of proof-of-concept for builders and consumers to feel comfortable about switching to low-carbon alternative materials,” Rose said.
Land use produces substantial GHGs in the form of CO2 , methane and N2O, and presents a major mitigation problem. Response currently focuses on stopping deforestation and introducing reforestation and afforestation – creating forests where they didn’t exist before, and cutting down on the farming of meat animals.
“Agriculture and land use is kind of an interesting paradox. At one and the same time it’s relatively easy to address and also reasonably hard,” Pankratz said.
“We don’t need a technological breakthrough to address food waste” or eating habits. It’s rather a matter of changing consumer and producer behavior, he noted, calling it “a slower and more diffuse process than greening power or moving to electric vehicles.”
Extensive reforestation can help offset future GHG production but “even that’s not a permanent solution. Trees die. And, increasingly, trees burn,” Pankratz observed.
Forests and other vegetation play an important part in the world’s natural ability to absorb carbon from the atmosphere, essential to offsetting GHG emissions. Engineered methods of producing negative emissions, like carbon capture, have come under criticism. Some climate activists say they present a moral hazard in encouraging future GHG output, or slowing mitigation efforts. But all of today’s main climate approaches include some form of CCS/carbon removal.
“Even if the world moves aggressively to decarbonize, the (International Energy Agency), the IPCC, the EIA, all these agencies see the importance of negative emissions,” Pankratz said.
According to a Deloitte study, the world will need 10.4 gigatons of CO2 capture capacity by 2070 to reach sustainable net-zero emissions—up from just 0.04 gigatons today.
“From the global standpoint, it looks like negative emissions technologies are required. All of the global pathways for holding warming below 1.5 degrees use some kind of technology that removes carbon from the atmosphere,” Rose said.
In the United States, “we need carbon removal because there are some sources where it’s impossible or extremely difficult to eliminate carbon emissions,” he noted.
At this point, a global climate plan probably wouldn’t include carbon pricing, such as introducing a tax on carbon. Making energy more expensive is politically controversial, and there’s no guarantee it would reduce GHG output sufficiently for net zero.
“There are different flavors of carbon pricing, including a carbon tax, emissions caps with emissions allowance trading, and offsets,” Rose noted.
“While appealing to economists, (a carbon tax) doesn’t guarantee the amount of emissions reductions, and thus it doesn’t guarantee the environmental outcome,” he said.
And finally, developmental equity has emerged as a huge issue in climate-change planning. Developing countries demand the right to grow their economies as quickly as possible, even with higher-carbon resources. Developed countries want across-the-board global GHG reductions.
Global coordination is “important for facilitating the clean energy transition, due to differences in opportunities. However, with differences in development between countries, there are challenging implementation issues that need to be considered,” Rose said.
“Developed countries have emitted the vast majority of greenhouse gases over the past 50 to 75 years. Developing countries, almost none. That is already a huge point of contention between developing and developed countries,” Pankratz observed.
Several recent books look into potential world climate plans and the possibilities for addressing climate change, as well as the obstacles and costs involved.
“Drawdown,” edited by Paul Hawken, lists 100 techniques and practices that could reduce global GHG emissions, ranked by how much reduction each could produce. The No. 1 action is refrigerant management, and the book notes that cooling and refrigeration will become increasingly crucial as world temperatures rise. Of its top 25 reduction steps, 15 are related to land-use or food.
A quote from the book: “The most conservative estimates suggest that raising livestock accounts for nearly 15 percent of global greenhouse gases emitted each year; the most comprehensive assessments of direct and indirect emissions say more than 50 percent.”
“Speed and Scale,” by John Doerr, lays out a step-by-step action plan on climate change. A quote from the book: “By our calculations, reaching net zero will require as much as $1.7 trillion each year – and we’ll need to go full throttle for 20 years or more.”
According to the experts cited in those books and others, a global plan to address climate change over the next 30 years should lay out definite and specific outcomes, likely including:
Increased industrial efficiency and less waste. Most electricity from renewables and low-carbon fuels. Greener concrete and steel, plus alternative building materials. More EVs. Improved agricultural and soil practices. Reduced food waste. More forested and vegetated areas. Much more CCS and carbon removal.
And fewer cheeseburgers.