Net Zero by 2050: The Reality

Net Zero by 2050: The Reality

Slogans such as 'Net Zero by 2050' are being adopted with remarkable alacrity by many organizations, including companies in the energy and oil businesses.

As a reminder, the term ‘Net Zero’ means that the organization in question intends to organize its operations such that it will have no net emissions of greenhouse gases by a specified date. The word ‘net’ is used because the organization is allowed to take credit for any action it takes to remove CO2 or other greenhouse gases from the atmosphere after they have been emitted. 

Greenhouse Gas Emissions Scopes
Whose emissions are these?
Credit: Unsplash

There can be confusion as to who is responsible for the emissions. Is it the organization that creates the greenhouse gas while making a particular product, or is it the organization that uses the product? Discussion of this potential difficulty is provided in the post Greenhouse Gas Emission Scopes.

Although commitments  to Net Zero goals are commendable, it is is worth spending a few moments considering just how realistic they are. In this article we consider three issues that may give us pause. They are:

  1. The rate at which we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (principally CO2), as contrasted with the rate at which we have been adding those gases to the atmosphere over the course of the last seven decades.
  2. The inexorable rate at which the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has been increasing, and
  3. The time it took to develop the current industrial infrastructure compared to the time available to us to develop a brand new way of industry as implied in the term ‘net zero emissions’.

Rate of CO2 Emissions    

The following chart shows the rate at which we have been dumping CO2 into the atmosphere.

Annual CO2 emissions actual and projected
Credit: Sutton Technical Books

The chart shows that in the year 1950 world-wide emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) were around 5 gigatons (billion metric tons) per annum. Since then emissions have climbed steeply and steadily. There was a slight slowdown during the pandemic, but we are now approaching an annual emissions rate of 40 gigatons. 

The chart shows that the rate of increase has been around 0.5 gigatons each year. It also shows that, in order to drop to an emissions rate of zero by the year 2050 the decrease will need to be around 1.5 gigatons each year. In other words, we would have to cut emissions at a rate three times faster than we have been adding them. This is, to put it mildly, a huge challenge.

Given that carbon capture technologies are still at the pilot stage, virtually all of this reduction will have to be achieved by directly cutting emissions. This means no airplanes, no trucks, no ships — in other words, a shut down of the world’s economies. (The recently-published IPCC 2021 report concludes that, if we are to stay below 2°C above the industrial baseline this century, then emissions must peak by the year 2025.)

CO2 Concentration

The next chart is known as the Keeling Curve. It shows the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere as measured at the Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii, starting in the year 1958. Overlaid on the curve are the acronyms for some of the important international meetings that have taken place, and the U.N. reports that have been published.

Keeling Curve meetings report overlaid

We see that, spite of the many international conferences that have taken place, the well-meaning government statements of intent, and the findings of the many learned reports that have been issued, CO2 concentrations in the last three decades have continued their inexorable climb. If anything the rate of change is actually accelerating. There are no signs that we are making progress in bending this curve so that CO2 concentrations return to their 1990s level.

The Next Industrial Revolution

Newcomen’s steam engine
Newcomen’s Atmospheric Engine

The transition to Net Zero is much, much more complicated than simply switching from one form of energy to another and then continuing with Business as Usual. Net Zero implies a radical transformation of the way industry and society works — it is, in effect, a second Industrial Revolution.

The first Industrial Revolution, which is better called the Fossil Fuel Revolution, took place when we learned how to exploit the buried energy embedded in coal, oil and gas. Yet the first Industrial Revolution has taken 300 years to reach maturity.

A convenient starting point for it is the year 1712 when the Baptist minister Thomas Newcomen (1664-1729) developed an “atmospheric engine” for removing water from mines. This invention meant that coal production could be radically increased, thus providing the fuel for the development of industry. Some 150 years later the oil fields of Pennsylvania ushered in the second phase of the industrial revolution, based on oil, not coal. 

We are now talking about repeating a process that is just as drastic, but in 30 years, not 300 years. Once more, this presents an extraordinary challenge.

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