Fostering Sustainable Land Use
Providing a roadmap for climate-friendly agriculture will be necessary for a net zero emissions future
The “European Green Deal” presented by the European Commission in 2019 includes a “Farm to Fork” strategy - aimed at making food systems environmentally friendly, more resilient to health crises like COVID-19, and less carbon intensive. About 23% of all global greenhouse gas emissions can be attributed to agricultural activity, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Reducing emissions from land use is therefore a necessary component of any effort to guide us towards a future with net zero global emissions. However, as stated in the Paris Agreement, agricultural emissions should be reduced without also threatening food security. Innovative approaches to sustainable land use, through the implementation of renewable tools and improved management of crops and grazing lands, offer a viable path to reducing agricultural emissions.
In addition, the waste generated by agriculture can be used to create new alternatives to fossil-fuel based products such as plastics. For example, corn, cassava, and sugarcane are already being used to create one alternative biodegradable biopolymer, PLA (polylactic acid), which generates less greenhouse gas over its lifecycle than conventional plastics.
One major challenge when it comes to achieving net zero emissions from the agriculture sector stems from the mix of greenhouse gases that are generated by current land use practices. Along with carbon dioxide, agricultural activities also emit high levels of long-lived nitrous oxide (from fertilizers, manure, and rice production) and short-lived methane (from ruminants such as dairy cows and rice production).
While long-lasting emissions will ideally be matched by long-lasting storage, shorter-lived emissions can be offset by the less permanent storage of CO2 in soils and biomass. Methane and nitrous oxide emissions appear to be more difficult to reduce than CO2 emissions - therefore, some level of offsetting for non-CO2 emissions is also likely to be necessary to achieve net zero agriculture. Some promising options for offsetting ongoing greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture relate to the protection and expansion of existing, natural carbon-capture systems - by protecting existing forests that have high carbon-capture potential, and by planting more trees to increase natural greenhouse gas removal processes. Each may prove viable for sustainable land use that can foster a low-carbon future.
Reducing Wasted Energy and Materials
Developing more circular economy-related policies could sharply cut emissions. The energy used to produce materials that quickly cycle into waste systems - like household items and building materials - is one of the biggest sources of fossil fuel emissions in the global economy. Efforts to decarbonize by reducing energy waste can create significant numbers of new jobs, and substantially increase related investment returns - overall, the economic payoff from reducing waste can be profound.
Reducing both energy and material waste is a key pillar of any credible net zero policy. In the US alone, tripling primary energy efficiency and increasing the renewable energy supply by five times relative to 2010 levels could potentially generate some $5 trillion in cost savings - and reduce carbon dioxide emissions by up to 86% by 2050, according to one estimate.
While the production of energy and its consumption via buildings and transportation together generate 55% of global greenhouse gas emissions, the remaining 45% is directly linked to both the production of goods and the management of land - with more than 20% of that attributed specifically to material production.
Policies for achieving net zero emissions should therefore incentivize businesses to minimize waste during the entire lifecycle of materials - including every stage of production, use, re-use, re-cycling, reprocessing, and retirement. This can be achieved through increasing a product’s durability, and through better designing for the repurposing and re-use of products after they are purchased and used.
Some of the elements of this plan include making sustainable products the norm within the bloc, empowering consumers to move economies in a more circular direction, and focusing on sectors that tend to use the most resources but also demonstrate a significant potential for circularity - such as electronics, packaging, and food.
According to one estimate, for example, extending the active life of clothing by nine months may reduce the emissions associated with that sort of item by 27%. Such circular design practices, if applied more broadly, could significantly reduce global emissions. One of the pillars of the European Union’s “European Green Deal,” an agenda unveiled in 2019 aimed at bolstering sustainable growth, is the "Circular Economy Action Plan."
GREEN NEW DEALS
While it isn't a brand-new concept, the Green New Deal has become a big part of policy debates in the country today, largely due to the remarkable ascent of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), the youngest woman to be elected to the House of Representatives and already a favorite to run for president in 2024.
Achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 - a necessary step in averting a climate catastrophe - will require the re-evaluation and evolution of current business and government practices.
A series of movements, policy proposals, and approved pieces of legislation around the world are pushing “green new deals” designed to slash emissions and foster greater sustainability. These efforts seek to create opportunities to dramatically curb carbon emissions, protect natural systems, and develop greenhouse gas removal technologies. Ultimately, the ideal net-zero policies, whether implemented in the public or the private sector, will include interventions that incentivize collaboration across institutions, as well as measures for these institutions to hold both one another and governments accountable.
The term Green New Deal has been used to describe various sets of policies that aim to make systemic change. For instance, the United Nations (U.N.) announced a Global Green New Deal in 2008. Former President Barack Obama added one to his platform when he ran for election in 2008, and Green Party candidates, such as Jill Stein and Howie Hawkins, did the same.
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Guiding Greenhouse Gas Removal
The models informing net-zero policies assume the deployment of carbon capture technologies. Technological innovation could help even those economies that are heavily-reliant on fossil fuel extraction meet their emissions-reduction targets.
Canada, for example, where the “Pact for a Green New Deal” movement has pressed for concerted action to confront the climate crisis, mentioned the deployment of carbon capture technology in its first nationally-determined contribution submitted in accordance with the Paris Agreement. Alberta, Canada has said it will allocate CAD $1.24 billion through the year 2025 to two commercial-scale carbon capture and storage projects, which are designed to help the province reduce carbon dioxide emissions from expanding oil sands operations. On a global scale, net zero by mid-century will be nearly impossible to achieve without large-scale offsetting.
That is because even if decarbonization is accelerated at unprecedented rates, global net zero is not possible without stranding existing capital stock. It is therefore likely that the active removal of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere at a massive scale will be necessary - and is in fact already assumed in models designed to inform policy.
Only geological sequestration or remineralization ensure storage for tens of thousands of years. Most techniques - in particular those with long-lived storage potential - require significant energy, and cost more than conventional methods of emissions reduction like enhanced energy efficiency and electrification. Regardless, these methods appear necessary to offset emissions from the hardest-to-decarbonize sectors, such as aviation, cement, and chemical production in ways that will cost-effectively limit warming to well under 2°C.
According to these models, restricting warming to 1.5°C will require the removal of hundreds of billions of tones of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in the coming decades. Greenhouse gas removal can involve both natural processes and engineered approaches. One commonly cited method involves growing biomass to suck carbon out of the air, burning it to generate electricity, capturing CO₂ emissions from the combustion, and compressing and storing it in geologically inert underground reservoirs like spent oil wells. Another method, called direct air capture, involves filtering or chemically concentrating CO₂ out of the air - at which point it can be used or directly stored in deep geologic formations.
Planning for a Net Zero Ocean
Policies aimed at curbing emissions are not complete without a focus on the ocean. When lawmakers in the US released a sweeping “Green New Deal” resolution in 2019, they received criticism for overlooking a key element of global environmental health: the ocean.
The ocean is the largest carbon sink found in nature, estimated to store 50 times more carbon than the atmosphere. However, as greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, the ocean is hitting a saturation point; high levels of carbon dioxide are acidifying ocean water in a way that inhibits carbon capture potential.
Reducing greenhouse gas emissions to a net zero balance quickly will help mitigate further damage to ocean ecosystems. Many vulnerable communities are already feeling the effects of a changing ocean, and further impacts are to be expected, making adaptation efforts necessary now in the most at-risk regions. In Viet Nam, for example, the heavily-populated Mekong Delta region and the coast around the capital Hanoi are projected to be heavily impacted by flooding triggered by rising sea levels by 2050. According to one estimate, some 31 million people in the country could be threatened with saltwater flooding at least once per year by that point.
Ocean acidification is already having negative effects on marine ecosystems. In Australia, the Great Barrier Reef, the world’s largest coral reef system and home to thousands of marine species, risks dramatic decline as acidification prevents coral from properly rebuilding. Adverse changes to the ocean also affect life on land. About 1.4 billion people live in areas vulnerable to rising sea levels and increased extreme weather events - including low-lying coastal regions, small islands, high mountain regions, and the Arctic. Many of these people are indigenous and at risk of losing resources essential to their communities and cultures.
Access to fishing - an essential source of protein and nutrients for much of the world - is also threatened by recent changes to the ocean. As waters get warmer, fish migrate north, disrupting fishing routes and forcing fishing boats to travel farther. These longer distances mean more fossil fuels are being used, creating a feedback loop that exacerbates both the climate crisis and food security issues. Both global and marine-specific solutions are needed to address these critical changes.
Plans to Decarbonize Heavy Industry
Policies aimed at net zero emissions from industries like mining must include both incentives and requirements. In Australia, where some political leaders have pushed for a comprehensive “Green New Deal” to more aggressively reduce greenhouse gas emissions, a number of the biggest heavy industry firms including mining concerns agreed in 2020 to join an initiative designed to reduce emissions from their supply chains.
Heavy industry is responsible for 22% of global emissions, and is considered one of the most challenging sectors for achieving net zero solely through emission reductions and clean energy. Industrial products like cement, steel, and petrochemicals represents about half of all heavy industry - and the use of extreme heat in these sectors accounts for about 10% of all global emissions.
Options for decarbonizing industrial heat include biomass, electricity, hydrogen, nuclear, and carbon capture and storage - though none are yet relatively cost effective. Among these, hydrogen is widely favored, though clean varieties are currently relatively expensive to produce. The mining industry is in a particularly unique position - it has much to lose, but also much to gain and to contribute when it comes to the broader push to transition to net zero emissions. For example, even as decarbonization may prove to be a costly exercise for the mining industry, as the world as a whole head towards a net zero emissions future the industry must play a key role in sourcing the materials that will be needed for a post-carbon transition.
The Paris Agreement Set the Mould
The landmark agreement reached in 2015 provides a framework for climate-related policies around the world.
The Paris Agreement holds that the global average temperature increase above pre-industrial levels must be limited to well below 2ºC - and every possible effort must be made to limit warming to 1.5°C. This requires perfectly balancing new greenhouse gas emissions and removals (or “net zero emissions”) by 2050, and policies should be designed accordingly.
The Paris Agreement set out a framework to undertake and communicate ambitious related efforts and includes aspirations to adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change, foster resilience, lower emissions in ways that do not threaten food production (an acknowledgement of essential systems and interconnectedness), and to make financial flows consistent with a pathway towards low greenhouse gas emissions and climate-resilient development.
When the European Commission unveiled its “Fit for 55” plan in 2021 to cut carbon emissions by 55% by 2030 compared with 1990 levels - as a key element of the “European Green Deal” - it described it as a road map that includes eliminating the making of combustion cars and mandating that most planes run on sustainable aviation fuels.
While the Paris Agreement sets a global objective, the actions necessary to achieve it are driven at a regional and national level; each participating country must set its own related policies. China announced plans in 2020 to move up the timing of its Paris Agreement pledge that emissions would peak around 2030, and said it aims to reach net zero emissions by 2060. In early 2021, the US committed to re-joining the Paris Agreement; a “Green New Deal” proposed by members of Congress in that country in 2019 would help ensure the US can contribute its fair share to meeting the agreement’s goals. There are several requirements for aligning with the temperature goals of the Paris Agreement.
Net zero policies must follow a shared, science-based, comprehensive method for accounting and reporting all emissions of greenhouse gases, which must be reduced by phasing out the use of fossil fuels and implementing clean alternatives - and, carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases must be removed from the atmosphere through carbon-capture technologies to offset remaining emissions.
Roadmaps for Clean Energy
Policy-makers can put economies on a net-zero path with the right plans. The “Green New Deal” promoted by the United Kingdom’s opposition Labor Party calls for reducing greenhouse gas emissions through a series of dramatic changes - including transforming the country’s energy systems from polluting fossil fuels to clean renewables. The energy transition is actually already underway in the UK - as clean electricity has been deployed, related costs have fallen dramatically.
Energy, and particularly electricity, can foster significant job growth (the Labor Party plan and other, related plans call for a “just energy transition” that helps workers in legacy energy jobs learn new skills relevant to cleaner systems). In order to meet the Paris Agreement’s goal of keeping the global temperature increase well below 2ºC above pre-industrial levels, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the UN body that assesses the science related to climate change, has said a virtually-full decarbonization of the global power sector around the middle of this century is necessary to quickly reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. This decarbonization requires both the phasing out of the fossil-fuel based energy sources, and the expansion of comprehensive, sustainable energy systems.
Renewable energy sources have become an increasingly affordable and available alternative to fossil fuels, thanks to the emergence of clean energy technologies that in many places are now cheaper than natural gas and coal.
Innovation is also reducing the cost of managing the intermittency of renewable energy; batteries have rapidly become more inexpensive, as has hydrogen - which can potentially be converted to ammonia for longer-term energy storage, transportation, and industrial and agricultural uses. Smart technologies and intelligent urban design are also becoming more available to help manage and reduce energy demand. Some “Green New Deal” plans include policy frameworks to help particularly heavy-emitting sectors, such as manufacturing and transportation, better tap into clean energy as a means to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.
In early 2020, the German cabinet backed a plan, later approved, for the country to phase out its use of coal-fueled power sources by the year 2038 - and shift instead to renewable energy sources like wind and solar power (the country’s Green Party has pressed for a phase out even earlier, by 2030).