Models show that to avert dangerous levels of climate change, global carbon dioxide emissions must fall to zero later this century. Most of these emissions arise from energy use. Davis et al. review what it would take to achieve decarbonization of the energy system. Some parts of the energy system are particularly difficult to decarbonize, including aviation, long-distance transport, steel and cement production, and provision of a reliable electricity supply. Current technologies and pathways show promise, but integration of now-discrete energy sectors and industrial processes is vital to achieve minimal emissions. Net emissions of CO2 by human activities - including not only energy services and industrial production but also land use and agriculture - must approach zero in order to stabilize global mean temperature. Energy services such as light-duty transportation, heating, cooling, and lighting may be relatively straightforward to decarbonize by electrifying and generating electricity from variable renewable energy sources (such as wind and solar) and dispatchable ("on-demand") nonrenewable sources (including nuclear energy and fossil fuels with carbon capture and storage). However, other energy services essential to modern civilization entail emissions that are likely to be more difficult to fully eliminate. These difficult-to-decarbonize energy services include aviation, long-distance transport, and shipping; production of carbon-intensive structural materials such as steel and cement; and provision of a reliable electricity supply that meets varying demand. Moreover, demand for such services and products is projected to increase substantially over this century. The long-lived infrastructure built today, for better or worse, will shape the future.
Here, we review the special challenges associated with an energy system that does not add any CO2 to the atmosphere (a net-zero emissions energy system). We discuss prominent technological opportunities and barriers for eliminating and/or managing emissions related to the difficult-to-decarbonize services; pitfalls in which near-term actions may make it more difficult or costly to achieve the net-zero emissions goal; and critical areas for research, development, demonstration, and deployment. It may take decades to research, develop, and deploy these new technologies.
DOI Link: https://doi.org/10.1126/science.aas9793