CAT Decarbonisation Memo Series

Decarbonisation series

The vast majority of governments around the world have agreed to combat climate change and to accelerate and intensify the actions and investments needed for a sustainable low carbon future through the ratification of the Paris Agreement. Achieving the Paris Agreement’s long-term temperature goal of limiting global warming to 1.5°C requires urgent and comprehensive action. It is clear that every sector of the economy will be required to play its part in the deep and rapid decarbonisation of the overall economy.

The question is: How can different sectors achieve the rapid transformations required? The Climate Action Tracker attempts to answer this through our series of decarbonisation memos. Below are summaries and links of this analysis, split into different sectors.

Transformation Points

Transformation points

Achieving the speed and scale required for full decarbonisation

Staying within the Paris Agreement 1.5˚C temperature limit requires rapid, large-scale systemic transformations to fully decarbonise the global energy system by 2050.

Transformations of the speed and scale required have occurred historically when systems reached a transformation point: the moment when a previously novel technology, behaviour or market model achieved critical mass, took off, and rapidly became the new normal. Policy action concerning these transformation points is key to kick-starting a rapid and wide-ranging transformation.

This analysis looks into how different policy actions, at various stages of the technological adoption process, can influence uptake of the many key decarbonisation technologies needed for the future.

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Heavy Transport

The highway to Paris

Safeguarding the climate by decarbonising freight transport

To be compatible with the Paris Agreement’s long-term goal, freight trucks need to be almost fully decarbonised by around 2050. Achieving this will require governments setting up policy strategies for decarbonising freight vehicles and incentivising modal shift. A carbon-free power sector can pave the way for decarbonising road freight transport—either through electric trucks or renewables-based fuels such as hydrogen, biofuels, or synthetic fuels. Zero carbon road freight would entail significant co-benefits including improved air quality, energy security, electricity storage and economic development.

By 2030, the freight sector would need to achieve mass market deployment of electric trucks (including plug-in electric and hybrid technologies). Commercial electric trucks are emerging, but countries need to urgently ramp up R&D and provide incentives for investment into zero carbon options, including renewables- based hydrogen or other fuels. One of the few options for immediate GHG emissions reductions are sustainably produced biofuels.

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A policy spotlight on energy efficiency

Appliances and lights could see big climate gains

Energy efficiency improvements for appliances and lighting is one of the key short term measures to support deep and rapid decarbonisation of the building sector by 2030. Coupled with a low carbon power supply, existing highest energy performance and labelling standards for appliances and lighting could bridge the emissions gap required in the sector by 2030 to achieve the Paris Agreement temperature goal.

Increasing the energy efficiency of appliances and lighting decreases final energy demand and will help to attain faster overall decarbonisation of the power sector, a crucial enabling factor to stay within a 1.5°C warming limit. To be effective, minimum energy performance standards need to be enforced, harmonised across regions and continually strengthened to keep up with technological progress. Adoption can be increased through labelling standards and incentives through public procurement. Policy design is crucial; both public and private actors need tailored initiatives that specifically address barriers.

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What's on the table?

Mitigating agricultural emissions while achieving food security

Mitigating emissions from agriculture is key to achieving deep cuts in emissions in line with the Paris Agreement’s long-term goal of “net-zero” emissions. Options for emission reductions on the supply side include efficiency improvements, take-up of best practices and innovative approaches in farming.

Mitigation opportunities on the demand side are equally important—e.g. in transport, storage and consumption of food—and this is where consumer behaviour plays a major role. Changes in consumer behaviour, resulting in substantial benefits for public health, hold large potential for deep reductions in agricultural non-CO2 emissions while ensuring the growing demand for food worldwide can be met.

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Manufacturing a low-carbon society

How can we reduce emissions from cement and steel?

The decarbonisation of heavy industry is key to achieving deep cuts in emissions in line with the Paris Agreement’s long-term temperature limit. Reducing these industrial emissions is challenging, as heavy industry emissions are often intrinsically linked to production processes.

Improvements in efficiency and decarbonisation of the energy supply can lead to emissions reductions. Their combined potential for both steel and cement is estimated to be around a 30%–50% reduction below current trends by 2050.

To further decarbonise heavy industry sectors, a shift to innovative low-carbon technologies, product substitutions, circular production routes, and possible industrial scale deployment of carbon capture and storage will be needed. Targeted RD&D efforts are necessary to accelerate the availability of these options.

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Natural Gas

Foot off the gas

Increased reliance on natural gas in the power sector risks an emissions lock-in

To achieve the Paris Agreement’s long-term temperature goal, the power sector needs to rapidly transition to being carbon-free by around 2050. This requirement for a complete CO2 emissions phase-out, combined with increasing competition from renewables, results in a dwindling role for natural gas in the power sector towards the middle of the century.

Despite this, many continue to project an increase in gas consumption, and governments and companies are planning significant investments in new natural gas infrastructure, locking in a dependency on fossil fuels, while ignoring the increasing role of low-carbon alternatives. This increase in investments, combined with a demand that is likely to decrease, will lead to significant stranded assets in a Paris Agreement-compatible future.

Natural gas is often perceived as a ‘clean’ source of energy that complements variable renewable technologies. However, fugitive emissions during gas extraction and transport are an on-going problem. There are numerous options for integrating renewables that reduce and ultimately eliminate the need for natural gas in the power sector.

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Constructing the future

Will the building sector use its decarbonisation tools?

Nearly one fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions come from the building sector, which will therefore play a key role in achieving the Paris Agreement long-term temperature goal. Under current policies, energy consumption in buildings is set to rise by 1% per year despite the fact that mature technological solutions are available to reduce emissions.

The combination of new buildings built to zero-energy standards and high levels of renovation (3–5% per year), could bring the building sector onto a 1.5°C compatible pathway. But such a scale-up of efforts cannot happen overnight. Every new building that is not “Paris Agreement-proof” in its construction will lead to a further “lock-in” of emissions, and will require future renovation.

Existing renovation efforts are currently too slow (~1% of stock renovated per year in some developed regions), and too shallow. Delayed action will put additional pressure on emission reductions in other sectors and/or increase the need for negative emissions approaches.

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The road ahead

How do we move to cleaner car fleets?

Science tells us the global decarbonisation of the transport sector is key to achieving deep cuts in emissions in line with the Paris Agreement’s long-term temperature limit. Fuel economy and emission standards set by a number of countries will help to deeply decarbonise their transport sector in the coming decades. But much more work is needed, particularly with swift and extensive deployment of electric vehicles powered by clean electricity.

If countries were to double fuel economy standards in new cars by 2030, and achieve 50% EV uptake by 2050, then most would get close to—or even reach—the 2°C pathway. To go from a 2°C to a 1.5°C trajectory, however, zero global aggregate emissions would need to be reached around 10 years earlier. This suggests that for the transport sector to decarbonise sufficiently, there is no choice but to adopt zero-emission vehicles unless major shifts take place in transport behaviour.

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