Net Zero by 2050
Many nations and organizations have adopted a target of ‘Net Zero by 2050’. Their aim is to have no net emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases by the year 2050. It is unlikely that we will achieve such an ambitious goal in such a short period of time. Nevertheless, it is our responsibility to try.
One way of addressing this goal is to develop technologies that either slow down the rate of climate change and/or mitigate the consequences. In this book we look at a wide range of technologies, ranging from those that are already well-established, such as solar and wind power, to those that are at the concept phase, such as nuclear fusion and ammonia fuel cells. Four basic questions are asked when considering a new technology.
1) Will it work?
2) Can it be scaled up to be commercially viable?
3) Can it be implemented world-wide before the year 2050?
4) What is the business incentive?
For each technology the challenges that engineers, project managers and investors face are examined, particularly with regard to scale up in the short amount of time available, the need for resources and finance, and the emissions that would be created while making such massive changes.
In this first chapter we take a look at the way in which the climate is changing, what is causing those changes and how engineers, project managers and investors can best respond.
Subsequent chapters evaluate specific types of technology. The book closes with some thoughts as to the path forward, and what career opportunities these changes open up.
Seventeen of the 18 warmest years in the 136-year record all have occurred since 2001.
Jem Bendell, Institute for Leadership and Sustainability, 2020
Climate change represents an urgent and potentially irreversible threat to human societies and the planet.
IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), 2018
We are as gods and might as well get good at it.
Stewart Brand, Whole Earth Catalog, 1968
The only people who think you can have infinite growth on a finite planet are mad men and economists.
A Clunky Sentence
Throughout this book we will refer to the Global Warming of 1.5°C report, published in the year 2018 by the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). The report is one of the most important documents ever published to do with climate change. One reason for its importance is that it contains the following memorable sentence.
In model pathways with no or limited overshoot of 1.5°C, global net anthropogenic CO2 emissions decline by about 45% from 2010 levels by 2030 (40–60% interquartile range), reaching net zero around 2050 (2045–2055 interquartile range). (my emphasis)
Of this statement, the February 8th edition of Bloomberg Green says,
Like most statements the IPCC sets down, the most important sentence ever written is just terrible—clunky and jargon-filled. What it says, in English, is this: By 2030 the world needs to cut its carbon-dioxide pollution by 45%, and by midcentury reach “net-zero” emissions, meaning that any CO₂ still emitted would have to be drawn down in some way . . .
. . . it may turn out to be the grammatical unit that saved the world. If not, it'll be remembered as the last, best warning we ignored before it was too late.
Because the words Net Zero by 2050 are so pithy and memorable they have been adopted by companies and governments around the world as their mission statement.
Let’s try and make this statement a little less clunky.
Carbon dioxide (CO2) as a greenhouse gas. High concentrations lead to warmer global temperatures. If we do not control our CO2 emissions the consequences will be potentially catastrophic.
It is thought that modern humans evolved about two million years ago. Figure 1.1 is a NASA chart that shows how CO2 concentrations have changed during the last million years. They have been in the range 200-300 ppm during that time.
In spite of the myriad of studies, reports, international agreements and web sites, we continue to add CO2 to the atmosphere in ever-increasing quantities, as shown in Figure 1.2.
CO2 Levels for a Million Years
‘Net Zero by 2050’ calls for us to reduce emissions to zero just 29 years from now. From then on, if we do use fossil fuels then the CO2 emitted has to be matched by the removal of an equivalent amount from the atmosphere using Direct Air Capture (DAC). The chart shown in Figure 1.2 has to become Figure 1.3.
In order to meet the Net Zero by 2050 goal emissions (less what can be captured from the atmosphere) have to fall to where they were in the year 1850 in just 30 years. To say the least, the challenge is formidable.
CO2 Emissions Net Zero
Articles and Blogs
The following articles, blogs and videos provide more information on the topics discussed in this chapter.