2020: Climate Pledges and the Road to Net Zero

By James Whyte with contributions from Buffy Price and Sherif Elsayed-Ali

To achieve net zero targets, all aspects of the global economy need to change — from energy to transportation and from agriculture to manufacturing. At Carbon Re, our mission is to enable this transition in foundation industries — such as cement, metals and bulk chemicals — which represent over a fifth of all global emissions.

Photo by Pixabay

While public attention is only slowly turning to a post-pandemic future, the foundations of a green recovery have developed substantially over the last twelve months. Here we reflect on this significant shift toward Net Zero Pledges in 2020. Against the backdrop of an extremely challenging year and so much economic uncertainty, the significance of this shift can’t be underestimated.

As UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres observed to finance ministers in October “Your recovery plans will determine the course of the next 30 years”.

One of the most momentous and long-lasting announcements of the year happened on 22nd September when President Xi Jinping announced that China would become carbon neutral before 2060.

President Xi’s announcement is the first time that China has set a long-term target of carbon neutrality, but it is the speed of that anticipated change that is also striking. President Xi said China will aim to reach peak carbon emissions within the next decade and rapidly decline thereafter. The urgency is entirely necessary.

China is currently responsible for 28% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, more than the United States and EU combined, so a dramatic reduction in the country’s carbon emissions will have a significant impact. If China meets these targets it will lower global warming projections by around 0.3 degrees Celsius. That’s a vital step in the efforts to reach net zero average CO2 emissions by 2044 which the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concludes is required to limit warming to below 1.5 degrees.

There are further reasons for optimism. While China is still heavily reliant on fossil fuels, it also leads the world in a wide range of clean technologies. It makes a third of solar panels and wind turbines, it accounts for nearly half of the world’s electric passenger vehicles and, by 2025, it will have two thirds of the world’s battery capacity.

China is not alone in making a net zero pledge in 2020. In November, both Japan and South Korea, the world’s 3rd and 11th largest economies, committed to achieve Net Zero emissions by 2050 as part of this global effort.

“Responding to climate change is no longer a constraint on economic growth,” said Yoshihide Suga, Japan’s prime minister. “We need to change our thinking to the view that taking assertive measures against climate change will lead to changes in industrial structure and the economy that will bring about growth,” he added.

November also saw Joe Biden win the US Presidential election along with his commitment to re-enter the US into the Paris Climate Agreement as one of his first acts in office. The President Elect’s Climate Plan ‘ensuring the US achieves a 100% clean energy economy and net-zero emissions no later than 2050’ could result in some real progress made in the world’s largest economy next year.

The number of local governments and businesses to commit to Net Zero has also doubled. The UN’s Race to Zero campaign, launched in June, was joined by the likes of Facebook and Ford and now encompasses 23 regions, 454 cities, 1,397 businesses, 569 universities and 74 of the biggest investors. Most of these commitments are for a zero-carbon economy by 2050, but an increasing number are also pledging to meet that goal by 2040. One of the year’s most eye-catching announcements came in January when Microsoft pledged to remove all the carbon from the environment that it has emitted since the company was founded in 1975.

The UN Climate Ambition Summit earlier this month marked the 5th anniversary of the Paris Climate Agreement, which in 2015 broke ground in international commitments to halting climate change. The number of new pledges made at this year’s summit added further to the progress made in 2020. The UK increased its target reduction of emissions from 57% to 68% of 1990 levels by 2030. The EU announced a new target of reducing emissions by 55% over the same period, which President Macron of France described as ‘a fundamental milestone on the way to carbon neutrality’. Sweden, Austria and Finland brought forward their 2050 target date for Net Zero to 2045, 2040 and 2035 respectively.

All these commitments have made 2020 a crucial year in making progress towards Net Zero. Of course, these commitments are just empty words if they are not backed up by a clear and urgent action. The challenge of the years and decades ahead is to create robust pathways and to set and meet clear milestones along the way. But there has been a sea change in attitude.

Now, the world must immediately stop or curb investment in carbon-emitting infrastructure. We also need to see a continued and dramatic increase in investment in energy storage, power grids, low carbon transport modes and green hydrogen technologies. The capital investment required is significant, and some of the technologies such as carbon capture and green hydrogen — are not sufficiently mature for large scale adoption in the short term. Interim solutions must also be deployed without delay.

Over the coming decade, improving efficiency in existing processes will be key to reducing the climate impact of essential, but harder to decarbonize industries, such as cement and steel, which alone represent about 15% of global CO2 emissions. Due to the cumulative radiative forcing of CO2 in the atmosphere, starting to reduce emissions today could have a 4x better impact on global temperatures than delaying action until 2050. So every ton saved in 2021 will have a significantly bigger impact than a ton saved a 5, 10 or 15 years later.

Efficiency gains now will buy the world time to develop and scale new zero carbon technologies. At Carbon Re, we developed our Zero Loss AI solution to serve this need: help manufacturers reduce their emissions, as well as their costs, today.

While 2020 has added a global pandemic to the existing urgent crisis of climate change, this year has also seen great progress on both fronts. As UN chief Guterres urged world leaders, “Let us tackle both and leave future generations with the hope that this moment is a true turning point for people and planet.”

Carbon Re is a technology company that develops solutions to help manufacturers decarbonise and reduce costs.