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Decarbonisation: meaning, technology and goals

In this article we’ll explore why it’s essential that we decarbonise our societies, and what actions companies can take today to start their own net zero journey.
Business
2023-08-22T00:00:00.000Z
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Since the adoption of the Paris Agreement in 2015, decarbonisation has gained increasing prominence on the agendas of nations, regions, and businesses worldwide. Countries are now on a path to decoupling GDP from greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) and making significant gains in the process.

However, there's a prevailing concern: Are these efforts progressing swiftly enough to cap global warming within safe bounds?

👉 In this article we’ll explore why it’s essential that we decarbonise our societies, and what actions companies can take today to start their own net-zero journey.

First up, what is decarbonisation?

‍Decarbonisation is a vital strategy for curbing the harmful effects of climate change. Fortunately, the advantages of decarbonisation extend far beyond environmental protection. It offers tangible benefits in risk management, health, value creation, and opportunities for innovation.

Decarbonisation: definition

Decarbonisation is the strategic reduction of human-induced carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions to combat the severe impacts of global warming. This effort demands a worldwide pivot away from fossil fuels, including oil, coal, and gas.

Currently, our energy consumption is the primary culprit behind CO2 emissions, accounting for 83% of the global output, as reported by McKinsey. Astonishingly, we pump over 34 billion metric tons of CO2 into our atmosphere annually.

In a collective effort, 195 nations have ratified the 2015 Paris Agreement, committing to contain global temperature increases to below 2°C relative to pre-industrial levels by 2100. However, a 2018 revision by the UN IPCC suggested a tighter goal, setting the threshold at 1.5°C. They cautioned that even a 2°C increase might pose significant risks.

Achieving the revised 1.5°C cap necessitates global emissions cuts of 45% by 2030 and reaching net zero by 2050. This translates to an annual global reduction of about 7.6%.

However, we’re a long way off being able to achieve these temperature limits. The UN Environment Programme's (UNEP) 2021 Emissions Gap Report indicates a sobering reality. Even if all current emission pledges and policies are met, we are on track for a 2.7°C temperature rise by the end of the century.

Transitioning our economic infrastructure and technologies away from fossil fuels is a significant challenge but remains entirely achievable. However, the effectiveness of this shift largely depends on our collective determination, both societally and politically. This is evident when we consider the corporate landscape: only 45% of FTSE companies have pledged to attain net-zero emissions by 2050. More concerning is that among these, 84% lack a robust plan to fulfil their commitments. To ensure a sustainable future, it's imperative that intentions align with actionable strategies.

👉 To learn more about the Paris Agreement, why not read our article explaining everything you need to know.

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How can we achieve decarbonisation?

Achieving decarbonisation demands a united effort from businesses, consumers, and political leaders. The foundational step for any entity is pinpointing its primary CO2 emission sources.

In 2022 global carbon dioxide emissions can be attributed to the following sectors:

  • Energy use in industry (24.2%) 
  • Transport (16.2%) 
  • Energy use in buildings (17.5%)
  • Fuel combustion (7.8%) 
  • Fugitive emissions from energy production (5.8%) 
  • Energy use in agriculture (1.7%) 
  • Direct industrial processes (5.2%) 
  • Waste (3.2%) 
  • Agriculture, forestry, and use (18.4%) 

Decarbonisation necessitates both technological innovations and societal transitions away from fossil fuel-dependent technologies. As these sectors are intricately linked, the transformation in one will invariably influence the others, underlining the need for a holistic approach.

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Why do we need to decarbonise our economy?

The looming trajectory of global warming poses not just a dire environmental threat but also a severe economic challenge. It endangers millions of lives, billions of homes, and jeopardises trillions of dollars in global economic value. Continuing our reliance on fossil fuels without a robust drive towards decarbonisation is not only ethically questionable but also economically unsustainable.

A closer examination of the numbers reveals alarming statistics. According to the consulting firm Moody's, an estimated $54 trillion in costs are associated with the current warming projections based on existing country pledges. If these pledges are not met, these costs could skyrocket to $69 trillion.

The 2022 IPCC report on Adaptation highlights that nearly 40% of the world's population is susceptible to the risks of climate change. This translates to billions of people potentially facing a fivefold increase in the frequency of floods, storms, droughts, and heatwaves without swift decarbonisation.

The impacts are already evident, particularly in impoverished regions. From 2010 to 2020, people in Africa, South Asia, and Central and South America suffered 15 times more deaths from floods, droughts, and storms than in other parts of the world.

The death toll from these impacts is projected to become even more staggering in the coming decades. The World Health Organization estimates an additional 250,000 deaths annually between 2030 and 2050 if we fail to decarbonise our economy, attributable to heat stress, malnutrition, and other health challenges.

Sea level rise is another concern, with a potential displacement of 10 million people for every 10 centimetre increase in coastal water levels. The difference between a 1.5°C and 2°C rise in global temperatures could result in a sea level surge of 48 to 56 centimetres.

Moreover, heavy rainfall events are now 30% more likely to occur every decade compared to pre-industrial times. This probability increases to 50% at 1.5°C warming and jumps to 70% at 2°C.

These figures underscore the significant repercussions of each half-degree temperature rise, including water scarcity, poverty, rapid species extinction, supply chain disruptions, and systemic economic risks.

The 2022 IPCC report on mitigation confirms that the cost of inaction far exceeds that of action.

The silver lining? There are known, viable solutions to mitigate these impacts. It's time to take the initiative and realise their enormous benefits.

👉 To find out more about climate change and the impacts it’s having across the world, take a look at our article outlining the growing challenges.

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What is needed to achieve decarbonisation?

Decarbonisation requires a coordinated technological and infrastructural shift unlike any we’ve ever seen. Similar to the industrial revolution, all sectors of society will be affected. Building the momentum to make these shifts requires collaboration and participation from everyone and significant capital investments.

Industry

Industrial operations, encompassing activities such as mining, oil production, chemical manufacturing, and the production of cement and steel, necessitate vast amounts of heat for processes like metal smelting, compound blending, and resource extraction.

In 2022, the industrial sector was responsible for a significant 37% of global energy consumption, with a large portion of this energy derived from carbon-rich fossil fuels.

Coal stands out as a primary energy source for these industrial endeavours, contributing to approximately 36% of the world's total energy generation. However, this heavy reliance on coal clashes with global ambitions to achieve net-zero emissions. For a sustainable future, coal's contribution to energy generation needs a dramatic reduction – it must drop by about 55% by 2030 from its 2022 levels, which would relegate it to powering no more than 12% of global energy needs by that year.

A promising avenue toward decarbonising industrial heating processes lies in transitioning away from coal-centric methods. Viable alternatives like biomass, green hydrogen, and natural gas, as well as electrification technologies, can be adopted for critical production processes, including those for cement, steel, ammonia, and ethylene.

Given the inherent challenges in curbing emissions from industrial processes, innovations such as carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies also present a beacon of hope. They offer a viable strategy to sequester or eliminate those particularly stubborn emissions.

mining operation in a forest

Electricity and heat production

The majority of electricity that powers our appliances, lighting, digital technologies, and heating systems is derived from fossil fuel energy sources, including oil, natural gas, and coal. In fact, over 40% of carbon dioxide emissions related to energy usage can be attributed to burning fossil fuels for electricity generation.

Encouragingly, recent data indicates that a substantial 39% of global electricity generation in 2022 came from renewable and nuclear energy sources. Among the clean energy options, solar energy has been growing at a remarkable pace. In 2022, solar energy contributed to 12% of global energy supplies, marking an increase from 10% the previous year.

Electrification, when coupled with measures to enhance energy efficiency, is widely regarded as a promising approach to diminish the carbon footprint of lighting, appliances, and heating systems. One example of this approach is the replacement of natural gas furnaces with air-source heat pumps (ASHPs), which can result in a substantial reduction in CO2 emissions from heating. If these ASHPs are powered by renewable energy sources, the environmental benefits are amplified even further.

nuclear power plant

Transportation

The transportation sector contributes around 24% of global carbon dioxide emissions, the majority of which are produced by cars, buses, and trucks. 

While alternative fuels are essential for reducing emissions in the air and shipping sectors, the good news is that effective solutions for ground transportation are already within reach.

Electric vehicles (EVs), hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, and biofuels offer promising pathways for transitioning the transportation sector toward lower emissions. Additionally, optimising efficiency by reducing trip lengths and minimising commutes can further decrease emissions from this sector.

Embracing EV technology can also provide mutual benefits. As more variable forms of energy generation such as wind and solar become prevalent, battery storage will be critical to ensure energy availability at all times. EVs come equipped with batteries in their motors, and their chargers also contribute to energy storage. In a well-designed system, the battery resources of EVs could help store and distribute power from intermittent sources.

However, it is essential to note that for EVs to realise their full potential for CO2 emissions reduction, they must be charged using renewable energy sources.

electric vehicle on charge

Agriculture

The agricultural sector accounts for a significant portion of global greenhouse gas emissions (24%) - a significant portion of which comes from methane (38%) and N2O (79%) emissions. This sector encompasses energy utilisation in farming, livestock raising, and fishing.

Just as in transportation and industry, large agricultural machinery must transition to cleaner fuel alternatives.

Moreover, embracing regenerative agricultural practices and rejuvenating fields can transform vast tracts of agricultural land, which cover approximately three-quarters of the world's land area, into valuable carbon sinks.

field of crops

Forestry and land use change

Land use changes currently contribute to a notable percentage of global emissions -13% of global CO2 emissions and 5% of global methane emissions. These emissions often arise from deforestation for agricultural expansion or urban development.

Brazil and Indonesia, home to some of the world's most carbon-rich rainforests, are among the top emitters due to land use alterations. It's imperative to protect these essential ecosystems to prevent reaching thresholds where carbon-absorbing regions shift into carbon-emitting areas.

logging operation

Waste management

Waste management practices are significant contributors to global methane emissions and N2O emissions. These emissions arise from decomposing organic waste and incineration processes, making the waste sector a notable player in global warming.

However, the challenge with waste doesn't just lie in its disposal. It begins much earlier, during a product's life cycle. Emphasising product design and waste systems that prioritise reuse, recyclability, and durability is crucial for mitigating both consumption and production-based emissions.

waste management facility

5 tips to help you decarbonise your company

These five tips will help your business embark on the path to net zero: 

Assess Your Company's Carbon Footprint 

Understanding your company's environmental impact is pivotal. Before you can strategise for a greener future, it's essential to gauge your current CO2 emissions.

Determining CO2 emissions accurately can be challenging without the right tools and expertise. At Greenly, we're specialists in carbon footprint assessments, collaborating with businesses to provide a comprehensive evaluation.

Establish Clear Goals and Performance Metrics

Climate science, supported by years of rigorous modelling experiments, provides well-established scenarios for mitigating global warming. However, the specific paths to achieving net zero emissions can differ, depending on the unique operations of each organisation.

After assessing their carbon footprint, organisations should define tailored objectives and key performance indicators to guide their emissions reduction efforts over time. Crafting these specific targets is an essential step in the decarbonisation journey.

Embrace Decarbonisation as a Business Advantage 

Decarbonisation isn't just a trend; it's a transformative force that will shape the business landscape throughout the century. Forward-thinking companies understand that early investments in decarbonisation can yield significant long-term benefits.

This pivotal decade sets the stage: robust decarbonisation strategies today will pave the way for economic resilience and a sustainable business environment for years to come.

By championing decarbonisation, your business won't just be mitigating climate risks. You'll be positioning yourself to capture ESG investments, gain a competitive edge, tap into emerging markets, and earn the respect and support of key stakeholders.

Engage and Empower Your Employees

Fostering employee understanding and commitment to decarbonisation is crucial for achieving your business's sustainability goals. By actively engaging your team in your decarbonisation strategy, you're not only fostering a unified approach but also tapping into their collective energy and innovative ideas.

A shared vision for a sustainable future can drive meaningful partnerships, sustain momentum toward your objectives, and cultivate a culture of positive change.

However, successful organisational change hinges on effective management and communication. Keep your employees informed, provide opportunities for them to contribute, and offer incentives to encourage their active participation in your decarbonisation journey. In this way, you can turn potential uncertainty into a collaborative and empowering experience for all.

Engage your business partners in your transition

When businesses begin to tackle carbon emissions, they often focus on Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions, which originate directly from their operations and energy consumption. However, it's crucial to recognise that a company's influence extends far beyond its immediate operations.

Each business is part of a broader network of suppliers, service providers, logistics partners, and other stakeholders. This extensive value chain encompasses Scope 3 emissions, which often have a much more significant impact than a company's Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions.

Though they can be more challenging to manage and measure, addressing Scope 3 emissions is an integral step in comprehensive decarbonisation. Engaging with business partners, starting with suppliers, to decrease their emissions is vital for effectively transitioning to a low-carbon economy.

If tackling Scope 3 emissions seems overwhelming, think of it as a natural extension of your contractual processes. By prioritising decarbonisation in your business agreements, you send a powerful message that mitigating climate risk is an essential component of any successful partnership.

Carbon accounting companies like Greenly can help you to assess your company's supply chain emissions and to engage with your suppliers. We help to make the whole process as smooth and pain-free as possible, so why not get in touch with us today. 

👉 To learn more about scope 3 emission, why not check out our article that explains everything you need to know. 

What about Greenly?

At Greenly we can help you to assess your company’s carbon footprint, and then give you the tools you need to cut down on emissions. Why not request a free demo with one of our experts - no obligation or commitment required. 

If reading this article has inspired you to consider your company’s own carbon footprint, Greenly can help. Learn more about Greenly’s carbon management platform here.

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