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| 07/11/18

As more governments consider net-zero emissions policies, scientists warn about ‘tough-nut’ sectors


Difficult-to-decarbonize sources today account for 27 per cent of global emissions, and could be equivalent to current emissions from all sources within a few years. We need to focus more on these “tough nuts,” say scientists.

The Dutch government has proposed what is widely being described as one of the world’s toughest climate targets: a 49 per cent reduction in emissions by 2030 and 95 per cent by 2050, with a 100 per cent carbon neutral electricity system by that time.

The proposed law, unveiled last month, has the backing of seven of the parliament’s political parties, who together hold a large majority of seats. As a result, the bill is expected to pass when it is finalized sometime early next year.

For comparison, Sweden and Norway have adopted carbon-neutral targets by 2045 and 2050 respectively, but neither has so ambitious a near-term 2030 goal as the Dutch, and, like Canada’s 80 per cent mid-century target, large chunks are expected to be met by international offsets, meaning paying for others to do the emissions reduction elsewhere. The UK is considering a net-zero target for 2050 as well.

The development comes as the mayors of 10 large European cities, including London, Milan, Paris, Barcelona, Stockholm and Bonn, have this week issued an open letter calling on the European Union as a whole to adopt a bloc-wide target of net-zero emissions by 2050. In other words this 100 percent reduction target means emitting no more greenhouse gases than the EU can draw down out of the atmosphere.

These vaulting ambitions however confront a hard reality, described comprehensively in a recent review paper by 30 of the world’s leading climate scientists appearing in the journal Science. The paper outlines what an all-sector net-zero emissions energy system might look like, and in so doing, they highlight a series of sectors that are really hard to decarbonize but which are often overlooked in many discussions of climate policy.

While much of the focus has been on decarbonizing passenger transport and heating and cooling of buildings, alongside a build out of renewable electricity, relatively little attention is paid to what the researchers call really “tough nuts to crack.” These are vital sectors such as cement and steel production, aviation and long-distance road and marine freight. In addition, they say, clean electricity that needs to be available 24/7 will be very difficult as well. Renewable sources such as wind and solar may be lower carbon than fossil fuels, but they are also variable.

Altogether, these difficult-to-decarbonize sources today account for 27 per cent of global emissions, and as trade, construction and industrial production continue to grow, especially as populous parts of the developing world such as China and India become much wealthier, the scientists say that the emissions from these “tough-nut” sources could one day outpace today’s total global emissions from all sources.

Even though these are the toughest parts of the challenge, technologies do already exist to radically reduce emissions even here, such as carbon neutral or even carbon negative synthetic hydrocarbons. The problem is that some are still on the lab bench or very expensive. So the researchers argue that society needs to begin focus on scaling up and supporting commercialization of these technologies if we are going to be able to meet the emerging net-zero targets.


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