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Concentration of CO2 in the Atmosphere

Getting to Net-Zero Everything: Part 3

Sara Gutterman

This three-part blog series outlines the urgent need to transition to net-zero energy, water, and carbon. This final installment explores how the quickening pace of our climate emergency demands we reach full-scale elimination of carbon emissions.

The transition to the Decarbonization Economy will effectively require a complete overhaul of our socio-economic system. We won’t be able to shoehorn sustainability into old systems, meaning that we have the rare and thrilling opportunity to redesign our economy at a scale and scope that equals the transformation brought about by the Industrial Revolution.

One idea for decarbonization is carbon capture where CO2 is removed from air using massive fans and storing the gas permanently underground in a process called direct air capture. (pubs.rsc.org)

While recent climate reports issued by the United Nations and scientists across the globe are soberingly dire, many of the world’s best minds are focused on mitigation and adaptation solutions.

The transformation will be scary for some – namely, those who cling to antiquated business models, obsolete energy sources, and outdated technologies. They will fight, attack and fashion every conceivable obstacle possible to impede progress.

But just as earlier naysayers couldn’t suppress the adoption of breakthrough innovations like indoor plumbing, incandescent lights, or the combustion engine, efforts to hinder progress will ultimately be futile.

Our world is evolving into a cleaner, greener, and better version of itself, and the good news is that all of us – including even those that launch the most vigorous assaults on advancement – will reap dramatic rewards.

We will all enjoy clean air, fresh water, fertile soil, protected species, vibrant ecosystems, social justice, and a flourishing economy that is not only free of carbon emissions, but that also offers opportunity for incredible capital gains for those with just a little ambition and imagination.

While this utopian vision may seem idealistic, improbable, and out of reach, I am convinced that it is the inevitability of our species and the next stage of our evolution.

Roadmap to Decarbonization

Getting to net-zero carbon will require an inspired, novel, multi-pronged approach, with strategies ranging from simple, nature-based solutions like planting trees to deep energy retrofits to the deployment of complex enabling technologies.

Essential tactics include:

  • Sequestering existing emissions in the atmosphere through the protection of forests, oceans, and other critical habitats.
  • Driving renewable energy adoption; investing in super-efficient solar, wind, and battery storage technology; and implementing a national clean energy standard that requires utilities to derive increasing amounts of electricity from carbon-free sources.
  • Transitioning the entire built environment to net zero and all-electric by implementing energy efficiency retrofit programs and ratcheted codes, mandates, and incentives.
  • Electrifying transportation, requiring that all new vehicle sales be electric and implementing a “cash for clunkers” trade-in program to incentivize the transition to clean vehicles.
  • Reimagining industry and manufacturing, primarily in highly resource-intensive and polluting categories like cement, steel, chemical, and paper.
  • Transforming agricultural practices to reduce the impact of food production and preserving more land that can be used for carbon sinks.

To give you an idea of the scale of the financial opportunity, Moody’s estimates that G20 financial institutions have nearly $22 trillion tied to carbon-intensive industries, representing nearly 20% of their portfolios. With the net-zero commitments that these institutions have recently established, those dollars are now being shifted into the burgeoning areas of carbon tech, climate tech, renewable energy systems, battery storage, and the electrification of homes and buildings.

Decarbonizing the Built Environment

The built environment plays a major role in carbon emissions. The sourcing and manufacturing of materials, construction, and operations of homes and buildings require an immense amount of energy and emits a substantial amount of pollution.

The Department of Energy (DOE) estimates that homes and buildings in the U.S. account for 40% of our nation’s total energy use, 70% of electricity use, and 40% of total emissions.

It is estimated that if all buildings were net-zero embodied carbon (including the manufacturing, transportation, construction, operation, and end-of life-phases), then the United States could reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by more than 50%.

On a global scale, the UN avows that emissions from buildings must be reduced by 50% by 2030 and 100% by 2050 if we stand a chance at staying under a 1.5-degree temperature rise. Lamentably, we have a long road to travel—not even 1% of existing buildings are considered net-zero carbon today.

Fortunately, pioneering materials and technologies are being developed that will expedite the transition to net-zero carbon in buildings, offering sustainable solutions in high-intensity categories such as concrete and steel.

For example, 3D Graphene is a 3D-printed lightweight porous foam made of carbon that is reported to be 5% of steel’s density and 10 times its strength, making it an excellent, sustainable replacement for steel in skyscrapers and tall buildings, and self-healing concrete has a water-activated bacteria that reacts with starch to produce calcite to repair cracks, increasing the estimated lifespan of concrete by over 200 years.

Clean Electric Technologies

To get to net zero, we need a full-scale adoption of renewable energy, as well as the adaptation of infrastructure, regulations, and financing to support this transition.

Fortunately, the clean energy future is already here. Wind and solar energy are now cost-competitive in most parts of the world, and clean energy technologies can now harvest more power using less space and fewer resources than ever before.

In fact, power sourced from wind and solar is now less expensive than power produced by fossil fuels on a national scale, and it is now less expensive to build new onshore wind and utility-scale solar power generation facilities than it is to operate existing fossil fuel facilities in many markets.

The adoption of clean energy technology is leading to the transformation of electric-grid architecture. Power generation is becoming more distributed and localized, with enhanced load management and optimized demand-side energy management.

The Internet of Things (IoT) is enabling intelligent devices to remotely manage everything, from manufacturing to building operations to vehicle fleets to power grids, with the goal of optimizing efficiency, while Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology is monitoring cybercrime to enhancing digital security across grid networks.

Advances in battery storage are also enabling the transformation of our power systems, further facilitating peak load shifting and enhancing the resiliency of the built environment.

The cost per watt-hour of battery storage has decreased by approximately 70% since 2015, which is not only helping to fulfill the promise of distributed energy generation but is also spurring a revolution in vehicle electrification.

Some experts predict that economies of scale will bring down the cost of batteries to allow electric vehicles (EVs) to reach price parity with gas-powered vehicles by as soon as 2024, increasing the number of EVs on the road to 550 million globally by 2040—up from 13 million vehicles today.

Vehicle-to-grid technology, or the ability to store power in EVs and feed it back to the electrical grid when demand is high, is also evolving, taking its rightful place as an essential tool for optimized demand-side energy management. Smart charging software and bidirectional chargers not only allow EVs to draw power from or feed power back to the grid, depending on demand, they also enable EVs to serve as a backup power source for homes and buildings during emergencies and blackouts.

Carbon Tech Transforms Greenhouse Gases

Another burgeoning industry that is facilitating the transition to net-zero is Carbon Tech, technology capable of capturing and embedding large amounts of carbon into products and materials.

Companies throughout the economy are getting creative about keeping greenhouse gas emissions out of the air from industrial and manufacturing activities, as well as capturing existing CO2 particles and repurposing them into a useful input material.

Companies like Carbon Engineering and Climeworks are removing CO2 from air using massive fans and storing the gas permanently underground in a process called Direct Air Capture.

CarbonCure is injecting CO2 from factory exhaust into a cement mix so that it can mineralize in concrete—an essential innovation given that concrete production is one of the most intensive processes in our entire economy, accounting for approximately 7 % of annual global CO2 emissions. Not only does this process reduce emissions, the addition of the CO2 yields a stronger concrete material.

By using carbon, these companies are turning harmful greenhouse gas into valuable raw material, offering utilities, manufacturers, and other carbon emitters a much-needed economic incentive to capture carbon particles rather than release them into the atmosphere.

All Hands-on Deck for Decarbonization

When it comes to reaching net zero, a new wave of consumers is driving the bus. Imbued with an inherent ethic of sustainability, millennials and Gen Zs are facilitating market transformation, making a decarbonized future inevitable.

In a recent COGNITION Smart Data survey of this influential audience segment revealed that:

  • 86% of females and 81% of males responded that they prefer to buy products from companies that demonstrate a strong commitment to sustainability.
  • 77% of millennials are willing to pay more for sustainable products.
  • 79% of millennials are concerned about the environmental impact of products they buy.

In response to mounting public pressure, multinational corporations have entered a fierce competition to become the sustainability leaders in their sectors, pledging to become net neutral with respect to energy, water, materials, emissions, waste, operations, packaging, and mobility within the next decade. Sustainability is now a moral imperative, driving business strategy, innovation, and sales.

Companies large and small are finding ways to solve for mounting environmental challenges. Behemoths Amazon, Best Buy, IBM, Philips, Schneider Electric, Unilever, and Verizon have all pledged to reach zero carbon by 2040.

Companies like Whirlpool and Facebook have made global commitments to reach net-zero emissions in plants and operations and convert to 100% renewable energy by 2030.

Automotive companies like Volvo and GM have pledged to electrify their entire product portfolios by 2040, while simultaneously eliminating carbon from their manufacturing, operations, and supply chain, sourcing renewable energy, and purchasing carbon offsets.

Microsoft has not only committed to becoming carbon negative by 2030, but it has also pledged to remove all of the carbon the company has emitted since its inception.

And, of course, the private sector can’t go it alone—governments will play a pivotal role in the shift to net-zero carbon through:

  • Programs and policies that bolster green infrastructure, research, and innovation.
  • National mandates for renewable energy and electrification.
  • Incentives for energy efficiency upgrades.
  • Reduced emissions from agriculture.
  • Lowered toxic emissions from industrial processes and manufacturing (including CO2, methane, hydrofluorocarbons, and other potent climate pollutants).

The United States has recently set aggressive targets to become net-zero carbon by 2050. China has pledged to cut carbon emissions by over 65% by 2030 and become carbon-neutral by 2060. India has committed to reaching net-zero emissions by 2070.

France, Brittan, China, and India have all announced intentions to phase out combustion engine vehicles as early as 2035. Germany has shifted to primarily renewable energy and decreased its emissions by 23% since 1990.

Britain has dropped its emissions by an impressive 43% since 1990, including a 65% decrease in its power sector emissions resulting from the phase-out of coal and super pollutants like methane and hydrofluorocarbons.

Emissions Reduction Must Happen Now

While these commitments are certainly encouraging, the reality is that they’re not enough to keep us below a 1.5-degree temperature increase.

According to the UN, current climate commitments would only cut global greenhouse gas emissions by approximately 1% by 2030—a frighteningly far cry from the 45% cut needed to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees.

In fact, at our known and foreseeable rates of progress, we’re expected to surpass 2 degrees Celsius within a shockingly short five years.

With climate change wreaking havoc across the globe, reaching net zero has become an absolute imperative, and the window for action to safeguard our planet is closing fast.

As we race against the clock and more people wake up to the reality of our climate emergency, expect the pace of change to accelerate.

Make no mistake, the revolution has begun.

To learn more about getting to net-zero energy, water, and carbon, watch Green Builder Media’s webinar at https://bit.ly/GBM-webinar.

Sara Gutterman is the cofounder and CEO of Green Builder Media.

Reprinted with permission, courtesy of Green Builder Media (greenbuildermedia.com)

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