Accelerating decarbonisation: Why we need more than more renewable energy
By Jonas Bengtsson
Climate change, from the watchlist to the to-do list
Solutions to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions to tackle global warming and mitigate climate change have been developing for decades. Scientists, media and the public started to pay closer attention to climate change in the 80’s, and already in 1988, NASA scientists presented to the US congress that they were “99 percent sure” that global warming was upon us. In 1989, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established to provide a scientific view of climate change and its political and economic impacts.
Today, climate change has moved beyond the science to a commercial and political reality. The World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report rank climate action failure as the second highest global risk by both likelihood and impact (the most likely risks being from extreme weather).
“Among the highest likelihood risks of the next ten years are extreme weather, climate action failure and human-led environmental damage.”
It’s beyond doubt, the climate is changing, and so is our society. We are on a long, but rapidly accelerating transition – one that will unfold over many years and reshape our economy. We know that climate change poses an existential risk. But we also see that climate transition presents a historic transformation and economic opportunity.
Investors have a key role in this global transformation, and they are tilting their investments away from fossil fuel intensive industries, and towards sustainability-focused companies. Alongside the shift in investor behaviour, we see policy response to climate change. In 2020, the EU, China, Japan, and South Korea all made commitments to achieve net zero emissions. Over 100 governments, responsible for more than 60% of global emissions, are considering or already implementing commitments to net zero. The U.S. committed to re-join the Paris Agreement. Momentum continues to build and the tectonic shift we are seeing is accelerating.
The size of the carbon reduction challenge
Getting to net zero emissions means we need to eliminate the 40,000,000,000 tonnes of CO2 equivalent we emit globally every year (40Gt CO2eq/yr). Science has clearly shown that we must reduce global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 50% by 2030, and to net-zero by no later than by 2050, to keep global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees C, beyond which long-term damage may be irreversible.
In Australia we emit 400,000,000 tonnes of CO2 equivalent every year (0.4Gt CO2eq/yr), and the government is aiming to reduce to zero emissions, but with an undetermined target year.
Where we see action today
More than half of global GHG emissions come from the electricity and heat we use in buildings, from our energy system more broadly, and from transport. The renewable energy transition is half the story, and there are many tried and tested solutions to reduce emissions and deliver on economic, social and wider environmental benefits. The remaining emissions come from industry, agriculture, and land use. About 25% is projected to be possible to reduce from circular economy solutions, technological innovation, diet shift, carbon capture and storage and other measures.
From a technology perspective, there are many reasons to be optimistic with regards to options available to address the other half of the GHG emissions. Impact X “Accelerate Zero” campaign, for example, focuses on climate resilience technologies to fast-track decarbonisation and accelerate pathways to net zero emissions.
In the following sections, we highlight some of the non-energy focused opportunities that are available, or at the cusp of scaling up.
Cultivating a rich ecosystem of Natural Climate Solutions
The perhaps most obvious solution is right in front of us: help nature do the job. Natural Climate Solutions (NCS) include practices such as forest restoration, agroforestry, regenerative agriculture, and they have been estimated to have the potential to deliver approximately one-third of the global GHG emissions avoidance and/or reductions needed to achieve our 2030 and 2050 reduction goals.
For example, to meet the goal of a 50% global reduction by 2030 to keep us on track for net-zero in 2050, we must reduce 2030’s business-as-usual projected annual global emissions by 23Gt CO2eq. Scaled up to its potential, NCS is estimated to be able to provide roughly 7-10 Gt CO2eq/yr of that reduction, at costs lower than many other emissions-reduction options.
"The IPCC report makes it clear that there’s no pathway to 1.5C without carbon removals. Nature-based solutions are a simple and effective way to take carbon out from the atmosphere in a manner that also creates powerful co-benefits, such as restoring and protecting our planet’s biodiversity."
[Jorge Chapa – GBCA Head of Market Transformation]
Project Drawdown, a not-for-profit organisation, has developed one of the most comprehensive analysis of natural and other emissions reduction solutions, assessed 80 solutions for their viability and potential to contribute to achieving the 2050 net-zero goal. Of the top 20 solutions with the greatest potential, 10 are NCS, and these 10 represent 24% of the total GHG reduction potential across all 80 solutions assessed.
Forest restoration has been recognised broadly as the natural climate solution with the largest maximum carbon impact reduction potential.
The power of forest restoration lies in the fact that trees sequester carbon in both the above and below ground biomass pools, and in that restoring these ecosystems provides a host of co-benefits that continually strengthen ecosystem resilience to climate change. These co-benefits include improved biodiversity, soil and watershed protection, resistance to disease and pests, and stimulation of sustainable local economies.
To indicate the scale of activity in Australia, the Federal Government’s Carbon Farming Initiative allows land managers to earn carbon credits by changing land use or management practices to store carbon or reduce GHG emissions. Since 2012, over 500 vegetation projects have been contracted, generating over 55 million tonnes of CO2eq reductions.
One of the largest projects, the NSW Heffernan Forest Regeneration Project, is delivering over 1 million tonnes of CO2 reductions. This project establishes permanent native forests through assisted regeneration from in-situ seed sources on land that was cleared of vegetation and where regrowth was suppressed for at least 10 years prior to the project having commenced.
Vegetation based emission reduction make up the majority of projects in the Australian Government’s emission reduction fund efforts, yet they only contribute to reducing Australia’s total emissions by about 1%. However, there is significant potential for an increase in this number, with the Carbon Market Institute estimating that there is future potential from land sector carbon farming, ranging between 360 – 480 million tonnes of CO2eq avoided or sequestered by 2030 in Australia.
Low Carbon Concrete – Removing up to 60% of embodied emissions from concrete
Cement and concrete production are responsible for about 8% of global emissions, it’s the second most used material (after water), with about 500kg of concrete being used per person per year. In Australia we use approximately 30 million m3 of concrete every year, contributing 10 million tonnes of CO2eq per year.
The production of cement is the main contributor to the carbon emissions, so a well-established mitigation strategy is to minimise the amount of cement in the concrete. One of several suppliers with lower embodied carbon concrete options is Holcim Australia, offering the recently launched ECOPact concrete range with 30-60% reduction in embodied carbon, and with an option for carbon neutral concrete through carbon offsetting.
Livestock FutureFeed – Reducing 10% of Australia’s carbon emissions
Australian scientists have developed a cost-effective seaweed feed additive called FutureFeed, which uses a variety of Australian seaweed that significantly reduces their methane emissions and has potential to increase livestock productivity.
The Asparagopsis species of seaweed produces a bioactive compound called bromoform, which prevents the formation of methane by inhibiting a specific enzyme in the gut during the digestion of feed. In fact, FutureFeed has been found to reduce the production of enteric methane by more than 80 per cent.
According to FutureFeed, if 10% of livestock producers added 1% of Asparagopsis seaweed meal to their daily feed intake of ruminant livestock, it is like removing 100 million cars of the road. In Australia alone, national emissions can be reduced by 10% by 2040.
Circular Economy – Eliminating 20% of global emissions by 2050
The circular economy is about designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and not only minimising impacts, but regenerating natural systems. If we adopt the circular economy as a way to make and produce materials, products, and food, we begin to see the complete picture of a resilient, net-zero world. The circular economy has the potential to reduce global emissions by 20% in 2050 compared to business as usual.
Addressing food waste and its related emissions
Australia wastes 7.6 million tonnes of food every year. Approximately 70% of this is edible food. Households are throwing away between $2,000 and $2,500 worth of food per year. Globally, roughly a third of the world’s food is never eaten, which means land and resources used and greenhouse gases emitted in producing it were unnecessary.
Project Drawdown estimates that around 100 Gt CO2eq can be reduced globally in the next 30 years from food waste reductions alone. There are numerous and varied ways to address key waste points, as food moves from farm to fork. In lower-income countries, improving infrastructure for storage, processing, and transportation is essential. In higher-income regions, major interventions are needed at the retail and consumer levels. National food-waste targets and policies can encourage widespread change. Beyond addressing emissions, these efforts can also help to meet future food demand.
In Australia, the Food Innovation Australia Limited (FIAL) study has found that it is feasible to halve Australia’s food waste by 2030, but it will require unprecedented action by governments, industry and the community. Industry led initiatives provide the most cost-effective approach to reducing food waste, once a supportive policy framework is in place. Combining policies that support and stimulate the private sector with voluntary, industry led initiatives produces the combination of ‘levers’ with the best chance of halving food waste by 2030 within a feasible investment range.
The challenge to reduce GHG emissions is here today, where we need to reduce current emissions by 50% by 2030 and achieve net zero by 2050 at the latest. The journey started decades ago, and today we are seeing action and intent from even the most unlikely camps in the private and public sectors. This gives a great sense of optimism, as every job is a climate job in the future economy, and we need everyone onboard and do everything in their power to transform our society and economy to zero emissions. We have many of the required tools, methods and technology today to scale up, and many of the most powerful solutions – not only reduced GHG emissions – improve our lives, ecosystems and economies as well.
Jonas is CEO and Co-founder of Edge Environment, an international sustainability advisory company helping organisations create value from tackling one of the world’s most fundamental challenges: creating truly sustainable economies and societies. He is also the Director and past President of the Australian Life Cycle Assessment Society (ALCAS), Founder of BPI Rating tech platform, member of the Living Building Challenge Australia and Vice-chair of the EPD Australasia’s Technical Advisory Group.
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