Getting to Net Zero Together
(Bloomberg) -- We are in the midst of some (hopefully) short-term turmoil in global energy markets. Companies are rightly concerned about ongoing operations in such moments, but many still have their eyes focused on long-term transformation. Several net zero emissions commitments this week — from Australian iron ore producers and cement makers, fast food giants, pet-food conglomerates and the biggest passenger airlines — point not just to multi-decade intentions, but to the years of hard work that will be required to meet those goals.
These commitments will be a challenge — they are total in scope, meaning they cover all of a group’s emissions, not just power consumption or the emissions from their own processes. This is important because power, in particular, can be provided renewably at either no additional cost or at a lower cost than what most grids provide today. Also, the composition of many emissions are heavily skewed towards what we refer to as ‘hard-to-abate’ processes where energy density, biology, chemistry, and even safety and reliability are elemental concerns.
Let’s first look at iron, steel, and cement. Together these sectors release more than four billion tons of carbon dioxide from production processes every year. Their emissions trajectories are nowhere close to peaking.
Given this, Fortescue Metals Group commitment to net zero Scope 3 emissions by 2040 is hard. Iron ore is the essential input to steelmaking, but producing it has far lower emissions than turning that ore into steel. Meeting Fortescue’s targets will mean everything from converting its shipping vessels to use ammonia as a fuel instead of oil, to using hydrogen and renewable electricity to make steel.
The Australian cement industry’s commitment to net zero carbon by 2050 is similarly complicated. Cement, as I’ve previously written, has a chemistry problem — it produces molecular carbon dioxide through the process of transforming limestone, not just from the burning of fossil fuels for energetic input. Getting to net zero will require switching fuels but also switching materials and probably processes as well.
Now to food and agriculture. Emissions from agriculture, land-use change and forestry are higher even than emissions from iron and steel and cement, though they are not growing as rapidly. While land-use change and forestry emissions have declined since the 1990s, agriculture emissions are slowly, steadily rising.
McDonald’s Corp is now planning for net zero emissions by 2050 across its global businesses (39,000 restaurants in 119 countries). Given its retail footprint, it can pick up some quick wins in renewable electricity and electric transport, but tackling food itself, and its associated emissions from land use change, will be a huge challenge. Beef, in particular, has an emissions problem not just from burping cows, but from land use, to a much greater degree than pork or chicken.
Aviation emissions plunged last year thanks to Covid-19, but BloombergNEF expects them to rise again by 94% by 2050 without any major technology or policy changes. Nevertheless, the International Air Transport Association has adopted a target for net zero emissions by 2050.
Decarbonizing aviation is hard for many reasons. Almost all airline emissions come from flying. Today’s aviation fuels are energy-dense and reliable. And, of course, requirements for safety and reliability are rightly sky-high. Any changes to today’s systems need to maintain safety, reliability, and performance in the future.
The aviation industry’s own lobby is quite clear-headed about this challenge. It sees almost all of its near-term reduction in emissions coming from carbon offsets. By mid-century, however, IATA expects zero-carbon sustainable fuels to meet two-thirds of its decarbonization target, with new technologies such as hydrogen combustion and electrification providing 13% and offsets and potentially carbon capture another 19%.
For the most crucial and most challenging-to-decarbonize sectors of the global economy, reaching net zero by mid-century will require intense coordination and collaboration. It will require consumers to understand their producers, investors to fund innovators and governments to support everyone. It will require everyone to do the hard things, together.
Nathaniel Bullard is BloombergNEF's Chief Content Officer.
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