How Does the World Get to Net Zero Before 2050?
Updated: Apr 14, 2021
Five Roadmaps for Getting There
With the world’s countries coming together this fall at the UN Climate Summit (COP26) to revisit and amp up their commitments to solving the climate crisis, the question on my mind is “What’s it really going to take to get to net zero before 2050?” (In a previous post, Making Sense of the World's Climate Targets I discuss what net zero means).
While no one knows for certain yet how we will get there, one thing is for sure; we are in a race against time and need to ramp up our climate action significantly if we are going to cut global GHG emissions in half by 2030 and get to net-zero emissions by 2050. We need to get on the road now.
As Jonathon Foley, Executive Director of Project Drawdown, wrote in a recent article, “What’s the best time to get started? Answer: 30 years ago. Question: What’s the second-best time to get started? Answer: Today.”
Luckily, some experts have created different roadmaps with varying degrees of detail to help guide the world in taking exponential action. I summarize five of them here.
Roadmap 1: Halving Emissions Each Decade
In 2019, the Exponential Roadmap Initiative (a collaboration between 55 authors from academia, business, policy, and civil society) published a science-based report, called the Exponential Roadmap. The authors say we need to focus on the immediate priorities of reaching peak emissions immediately and cutting emissions in half by 2030, and then again in half each decade after that. We do that by implementing and scaling up 36 solutions they’ve identified as already economically viable and by systemically transforming the entire economy. The report also outlines four tipping points that will speed up the transition: growing social movements, emerging political support for climate action, solar and wind energy, and digitalization.
The authors group the solutions into six sectors, as shown in the graph, which they say need to be implemented fairly and justly in parallel to reduce the corresponding GHG emissions: energy, industry, transport, buildings, food consumption, and nature-based solutions (sources and sinks).
Roadmap 2: Developing and Adopting Innovative Solutions
Like the roadmap above, the plan from Breakthrough Energy, which was co-founded by Bill Gates, says that we need to reduce emissions drastically between now and 2030 by using the tools we already have more quickly and smarter. However, this group then says we need to remove GHG emissions from the atmosphere by the 2040s. We do this by creating and implementing “unprecedented technological transformation” that will enable us to tackle what they call the “Five Grand Challenges”: reducing emissions in manufacturing, electricity, agriculture, transportation, and buildings.
They believe we already have some solutions we need to get to zero carbon, but not all of them. If we are to “give everyone in the world access to clean, reliable, and affordable energy,” we need to speed up breakthroughs in innovation. We need to “find ways to generate and store clean electricity, grow food, make things, move around, and heat and cool our buildings without releasing greenhouse gases.” This involves “investing in research and development, creating market demand for clean technologies, and designing public policy that encourages consumers and companies to make environmentally friendly choices.”
The technologies they say we should prioritize, and reward now are those that come with low additional costs, which they call Green Premiums, like in the solar industry. (Bill Gates defines Green Premium as “the difference in cost between a product that involves emitting carbon and an alternative that doesn’t”). Where the Green Premium is too high, like with cement, then we need to invest in research and development to make innovative breakthroughs that are more affordable.
The Breakthrough Energy roadmap outlines three ways to lower the Green Premiums and transition to zero carbon:
Governments implementing policies to make carbon-based products more expensive by including the hidden cost of pollution, and/or make the clean version cheaper. They can create regulations that limit how much carbon we can emit, shape financial markets, and support R&D.
Companies and investors committing to buy “cleaner alternatives, investing in R&D, supporting clean-energy startups, and advocating for helpful government policies.”
Individuals “holding their elected officials accountable and voting with their wallets.”
Gates also says that while we move towards net zero, we should recognize the effects of climate change are already here. We need to create climate resilience and prepare for a warming world that has more intense weather and rising seas. He suggests climate-proofing electrical grids, expanding storm water drainage systems, building seawalls, and ensuring adequate food in low-income countries. He recommends reviewing other evidence-based recommendations in the Adapt Now Report from the Global Commission on Adaptation.
Roadmap 3: Creating Positive Climate Tipping Points
Like Bill Gates, Simon Sharpe and Timothy Lenton, think we can use innovation to cut GHG emissions rapidly. However, they suggest focusing on creating positive tipping cascades via specific types of policies. They claim that when we achieve one tipping point, it will probably spark another tipping point, creating a cascade that speeds up progress. Some tipping points they highlight include:
Unprofitable Coal. They think that when this happens, various environmental benefits, like more renewable energy usage and decarbonized energy generation and transportation, will follow.
Electric Vehicles. EV production will go up when these cars cost the same to make as gas-fueled cars. As production speeds up, then costs will go down. Electric batteries will also become better and cost less.
To make these crucial moments happen, Sharpe and Lenton say we need to implement policies that will bring them about at a national scale and will contribute to tipping cascades across the world. They suggest using systems thinking to help identify ways to drive effective change, like putting pricing policies and targeted investments in place to lower the cost of clean technologies below the cost of fossil fuel technologies. For instance, Norway has a tax policy that makes EV cars less expensive than conventional cars. EV cars now make up 54% of all cars in that country.
They also advocate for cooperation between small groups of countries to facilitate decarbonization globally. They think opportunities are ripe in the energy and light transportation and that we are close to tipping points in both of them. Now we need to speed up the changes in other sectors.
Roadmap 4: Following Four Waves of Climate Solutions
Quick Wins. These are the easy opportunities we can implement aggressively now to get rapid results. They include stopping destructive practices (like deforestation, methane leaks, and biomass burning) and focusing on efficiency and waste in buildings, industry, transportation, and food, all of which help reduce emissions now.
New Infrastructure. At the same time, we need to transition our energy infrastructure, which means halting fossil fuel energy sources and installing renewable energy across the planet as quickly as possible. This also entails electrifying everything and changing the farming system to regenerative agriculture. Since this is an enormous task, it will take some time. Foley estimates the energy transition will take the next two or three decades of concerted effort to complete, if we start today.
Growing Natural Sinks. Reducing emissions won’t be enough to get to net zero. We must also support and expand the natural carbon sinks to remove carbon from the atmosphere. We must protect and maintain our existing carbon sinks (forests and oceans) and build new ones by restoring ecosystems (planting trees and using regenerative agriculture practices). Foley states that this wave of climate solutions is a “long-game” that happens by starting this work now and then steadily maintaining it in the future.
Deploying New Tech. Foley thinks the first three waves of solutions will move us a long way down the road. However, he also says there are some sectors that are “difficult to decarbonize and will require new technology.” We might also need technology to remove more carbon from the atmosphere. Specifically, he thinks we need to develop carbon-free cement, steel, plastic, and jet fuel. While developing this technology will take time, if we start today, it could make all the difference in the 2040s. He cautions us though to not “let the promise of carbon removal technology be an excuse to delay immediate emissions cuts. These technologies are likely decades away and only absorb some of our final emissions.”
Roadmap 5: Making Peace with Nature
In the most recent United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) report, Making Peace With Nature: A scientific blueprint to tackle the climate, biodiversity, and pollution emergencies, the agency outlines their roadmap to 2050. When Secretary-General António Guterres introduced the report at U.N. headquarters in New York in February 2021, he clarified that “We need to transform how we view and value nature. We must reflect nature’s true value in all our policies, plans and economic systems.” He also said that we need to address all three of the planet’s interconnected crises together—"climate disruption, biodiversity loss, and pollution."
Key messages the report conveys include:
1. Well-being of young people and future generations depends on an urgent and clear break with current trends of environmental decline. The world needs to reduce GHG “emissions by 45 percent by 2030 compared to 2010 levels and reach net-zero emissions by 2050, while simultaneously conserving and restoring biodiversity and minimizing pollution and waste.”
2. The world needs to address the Earth’s environmental emergencies and human well-being together. We need to align and implement goals, targets, commitments and mechanisms so our actions are more synergistic and effective.
3. We should transform economic, financial and productive systems to power the shift to sustainability. Countries need to “include natural capital in decision-making, eliminate environmentally harmful subsidies and invest in the transition to a sustainable future. “
4. Everyone has a role to play in ensuring that human knowledge, ingenuity, technology and cooperation are used to change our relationship with nature. Governments must empower “people to express themselves and act environmentally responsibly without undue difficulty or self-sacrifice.”
The report’s authors summarize their roadmap in a long chart on pages 37-42, which provides specific actions for different actors: Governments, Intergovernmental organizations, Financial organizations, Businesses, Non-governmental organizations, Scientific and Educational organizations, Media and social networks, and Individuals, households, civil society and youth groups, and indigenous peoples and local communities. Each section of the report includes activities that:
1. Address Earth’s environmental emergencies and human well-being together.
2. Transform economic and financial systems so they lead and power the shift toward sustainability.
3. Transform food, water and energy systems to meet growing human needs in a fair, resilient and environmentally friendly manner.
4. Address one of these sub-issues: Synergies, Climate change, Biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation, Health and well-being, Cities and settlements, Accounting for nature, Subsidies and markets, Investments, Access, Food and water, and Energy.
Making Sense of the Roadmaps
So how do we make sense of these five roadmaps?
I think each of these roadmaps brings something to the table. We need to halve emissions by 2030. We need breakthrough innovations to transform the way our society does things. We need to get to cascading tipping points. We need to move on all fronts, relying on quick wins now, new infrastructure and natural sinks in the 2030s, and new technology in the 2040s. But most of all, we need to make peace with nature.
What is most clear to me is that if we don’t get on the road and speed up our journey now, we’ll crash and burn. As the graph from the UNEP report below shows, we have a lot of work to do to get to the 1.5 degrees C scenario by 2050. And as Bill McKibben, in his recent New Yorker article, along with other climate experts, have said, our best chance to slow global warming is this decade.
McKibben thinks “the elements are now in place for truly rapid action, but success will require going far faster than economics alone can push us, and far faster than politicians will find comfortable. Never forget that climate change is a timed test; our best chance to take the actions that will end the trajectory of rising emissions comes this decade.”
It is going to take everyone everywhere to go all in changing how we make things, how we plug in, how we grow things, how we get around, how we live, how we spend our money, how we work together as a global community, and how we relate to nature.
McKibben says we need to beat inertia, and the obstacles thrown up by those vested in the fossil fuel economy by continuing to demand our governments accelerate the transition. Our voices will help provide the needed push to get us to our destination.
So, what can you do to move on down the road to the world’s 2030 milestone?
You can align your actions with those cited in the UNEP report to protect and restore life on Earth.
Here are some specific ideas from both the UN Report and Bill Gates’ book, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, all of which I’ve written about before in other posts, including Now is the Time to Double Down on Climate Action.
Exercise your voting and civic rights to hold governments and businesses accountable for their actions. Bill Gates says that “engaging in the political process is the most important single step that people from every walk of life can take to help avoid a climate disaster.”
Make calls, write letters, attend town halls.
Contribute to the net-zero GHG goal by making climate-friendly choices on how you get around and what you eat and use.
Take part in local efforts to restore and conserve nature, including planting trees and community-led clean-ups of waste in public spaces.
Ask local officials to commit to sustainable urban planning and initiatives that increase access to urban services, promote nature-based solutions, and build green and blue infrastructure.
Support fair trade and companies with sustainable products and that provide foster societal well-being.
Support and engage in local production and distribution of healthy food, safe water and clean energy.
Consider eating a more plant-rich diet.
Reduce waste (food, water, clothes, and other resources)
Reduce energy consumption, support community-based solar and wind energy, and chose clean energy when possible. You can see whether your state does by checking the Green Pricing Programs map at C2ES—the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions.
Buy an electric vehicle. More affordable options are on the near horizon.
I wish you well on your climate action journey.