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Finding the Best Pathways to Net Zero Featured Pattern: P1735 January 2022

Author: Susan Leiby (Send us feedback.)

The world's achieving net-zero carbon emissions by midcentury will require a huge global effort to scale up effective decarbonization pathways as quickly as possible.

Time is running out to limit global temperature rise to 1.5°C by achieving net‑zero carbon emissions by midcentury. The United Nations Climate Change Conference (United Nations; New York, New York) in Glasgow, Scotland, in November 2021 resulted in the Glasgow Climate Pact, which promises limited but real progress toward the decarbonization of global economies. The European Union, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States agreed to deepen cuts in carbon emissions significantly by 2030, and China and India increased their carbon-reduction ambitions—although their emissions will still rise. Importantly, the pact calls for all nations to submit stronger 1.5°C‑goal-aligned plans at the next conference in 2022.

Abstracts in this Pattern:

Researchers at the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology (Dübendorf, Switzerland) estimate that even with the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (Geneva, Switzerland) optimistic energy-transition pathways, the world has only about a 50% chance of limiting global warming to 1.5°C. Using a simplified global economic model, the researchers identified the fastest possible pathway: to push ahead with generating electricity from sunlight and use fossil-fuel power plants at full capacity "for one last time" to achieve the lowest possible cumulative carbon emissions. Paradoxically, this approach increases fossil-fuel emissions by up to 40% during the transition; however, the conversion could be complete within five years, and the chance of exceeding the 1.5°C target would drop to 20%.

Other research could contribute to efforts to achieve net‑zero carbon. For example, modeling by researchers from Monash University (Melbourne, Australia) and the University of Lisbon (Lisbon, Portugal) indicates that buildings in Melbourne could meet 74% of their total electricity needs via the full integration of solar technology into their roofs, walls, and windows. And China—the world's largest carbon emitter—is establishing a vast new research infrastructure to support its ambitious goal to reach net‑zero carbon emissions by 2060. More than ten universities and institutes have launched dedicated carbon-neutrality-research organizations. For example, Fudan University (Shanghai, China) and the government of Shanghai recently established the Shanghai Research Institute for Energy and Carbon Neutrality Strategy (Shanghai, China), which plans to focus on the deregulation of the electricity market and climate finance.