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Decarbonization: how to achieve it through an integrated strategy

In a note published on January 12, 2024, the US’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), stated:  “Not only was 2023 the warmest year in NOAA’s 174-year climate record — it was the warmest by far… We will continue to see records broken and extreme events grow until emissions go to zero”. The impacts of these records are clear for everyone to see: every day there are stories in the news about disasters associated with global warming – including drought, rising seas and extreme weather events – which are increasingly affecting not just the world’s citizens, but companies and public institutions as well, with extremely high human and economic costs.
As we all know by now, the reason temperatures are rising is because of emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) linked to human activity – not only fossil-powered transport, residential heating, construction and industry, but also methane-releasing agriculture, among others. These emissions are accumulating in the atmosphere faster than nature - through ocean and forest carbon ‘sinks’ - can absorb them. This is why integrated strategies are needed to ‘decarbonize’ our economies. By decarbonize, we mean activities that will lead to massive reductions in emissions – and eventually removal – of atmosphere-warming GHGs. Technology is evolving rapidly and there are a few key strategies that adopted in an integrated manner can help achieve decarbonization.
Electrification: definition and meaning

Electrification: definition and meaning

Electrification is the most efficient way to decarbonize final energy consumption

These include electrification of uses (and its complement: producing increasing amounts of energy from renewables), digitalization of infrastructure (to make energy use more efficient) and carbon capture and storage (CCS, which removes man-made CO₂ emissions from the atmosphere). While new technologies are coming online every day, increasing the reach of renewables as part of efforts to phase out fossil fuels would in itself make a significant contribution.

What is decarbonization and why is it so important?

Carbon dioxide (CO₂) - a leading greenhouse gas (GHG) - is emitted into the atmosphere by human activities in both residential and industrial spheres of life, like construction, transportation, agriculture and production of electricity. Decarbonization - as the name implies - is the process of cutting or eliminating GHG emissions by phasing out the use of fossil fuels and switching to renewable sources of energy such as sunlight, wind and geothermal heat. It is the key driver of the energy transition, itself crucial to fighting climate change.


The process driving the energy transition for a sustainable world

According to some scientists, decarbonization is only the first step in a necessary process towards reaching “net-negative emissions”, when human activities will remove more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than they have put in. However, according to some experts, reaching this objective requires making a distinction between carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases in general, as the latter include also - for example - methane produced by agricultural activities. Methane (also the main component of natural gas) “is widely regarded as the second most important greenhouse gas, after carbon dioxide,” according to an article published in January on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Climate Portal.

Fortunately, the path to decarbonization includes many strategies that can help reach the goal of zero emissions and therefore mitigate the worst consequences of global warming and climate change.

The first step is electrification of residential and business activities, as well as mobility. Another step is investing in clean energy production. While electrification is the end goal, it is important that it be reached through use of sustainable energy sources: electrifying the economy by burning more coal or natural gas will not solve the GHG problem; it will only shift it away from end-users to producers. Therefore, it is crucial that electrification be based upon the use of renewable sources like solar, wind, hydro and geothermal. Also important is digitalization: the introduction of digital technologies and Internet-of-Things (IoT) applications will make energy use increasingly efficient, helping to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and helping companies, governments and private citizens save on their energy bills.


The decarbonization and energy transition process

While many elements have to come together for humanity to “solve” the climate change puzzle and reverse the course of global warming, two stand out as crucial: decarbonization (discussed above) and the energy transition. By energy transition we mean both the global energy sector’s shift from fossil-based systems of energy production – oil, natural gas and coal – to renewables like solar, wind, geothermal and clean hydrogen, as well as increasing efficiency in energy production, distribution and consumption, which promotes massive reductions in climate-altering emissions. 

According to the United Nations the energy transition is important because it is a pathway to keep global warming to no more than 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels – as called for in the Paris Agreement – a goal that can only be achieved by reducing global greenhouse gas emissions by 45% by 2030 and to net zero by 2050. Meeting these targets is seen as crucial to efforts to mitigate the destabilizing effects of climate change.


Related questions

Electrification: definition and meaning


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