“NET-Zero Emissions” is a perennial hot topic at the annual Science and Technology for Society Forum (STS Forum), the science world’s answer to the World Economic Forum, held each October in Kyoto.
Because the Earth’s climate reacts strongly to small level changes of carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane in the atmosphere, humanity’s emissions of these greenhouse gases must be reduced to a point that can be offset via natural and artificial carbon sinks, thereby achieving “net zero emissions”.
The 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report underlined that net greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced to zero in order to stabilise global temperatures. The report also stated that any scenario that failed to reduce emissions to zero will not stop climate change.
This objective has been adopted by several countries under the Paris Agreement.
According to Professor Joy Pereira of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia and Vice-Chair, IPCC Working Group 2 on Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability, Southeast Asia is expected to experience the largest impact on economic growth as global warming increases to 1.5° Celcius.
Among the anticipated impacts include more heavy precipitation associated with tropical cyclones, highest increases in number of hot days as well as net reductions in yields of maize and rice, among others.
It is expected that increased exposure to multiple and compound climate-related risks would result in greater proportions of people that are both exposed and susceptible to poverty.
Today, energy sector emissions continue to rise with energy consumption, with further increases foreseen over the next three to four decades. A net-zero emission future must include continuation of the shift from high carbon to low carbon and, ultimately, to renewable energy.
We have the technology needed to mitigate climate change; the IPCC report had declared.
All too often, however, short-term growth is prioritised over climate change response.
But leading countries are showing the way to a better quality of life and vibrant economy without increasing their carbon footprint.
Sweden, for one, with its strong public welfare system is striving to be a model for sustainability with net-zero emissions.
At this year’s meeting, there was reference also to Germany’s transition to renewables, including the complete elimination of nuclear power. A systematic approach is being taken, with targets for the energy mix and subsidies.
Germany’s renewables are not enough for its energy needs, causing it to turn to power from other countries that are not necessarily reliable and leading therefore to questions of ethics.
And the German public is generally against the idea of their electricity supply being controlled by another country.
Ethical debates also include the phasing out of nuclear power.
Among many other challenging issues raised in Kyoto: how to reduce the impact on climate of the transport sector as global trade grows, and what can be done about the production of structural materials such as cement, which constitutes a major percentage of CO2 emissions.
It is necessary to transform the entire energy system, many believe, including for greater efficiency.
Promising pathways to progress also include power from nuclear fission (soon to be demonstrated at a multi-billion-dollar facility in France) — one of the most ambitious energy projects in the world today, putting a common price on carbon, and demanding that companies make a full accounting and disclosure of emissions.
Hydrogen was also raised as a solution for a net-zero emissions society. It can help decarbonise diverse sectors such as transportation.
By 2030, hydrogen use in industry should be possible through scaling up the value chain with governmental support. Japan is leading in supporting hydrogen technology as well as scaling up industry.
Kawasaki Heavy Industries is developing hydrogen gas turbine combustion technology and other related hydrogen initiatives and pilot projects.
Additional insight about hydrogen included the point that it could be the perfect solution to the issue of “difficult” carbons.
Hydrogen is essential for integration of renewables, mobility electrification and recycling industry CO2.
Hydrogen development is accelerating dramatically but we need higher targets and could achieve much more were it not for a lack of political will.
It was noted that for net-zero emissions, scalability is the key.
Although we understand low carbon solutions, such as using hydrogen technology scientifically, we do not know how to achieve them economically.
Scale is an engineering problem and it will be helpful to learn by experience through new engineering initiatives.
Another conversation centred on accelerating transformation, including the question of top-down versus bottom-up approaches.
A top-down example would be a United Nations road map, but some argue that change should be driven by local decision-makers. There was wide agreement that climate change should be approached with a holistic perspective, such as that adopted in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals initiative.
Although accurate predictions regarding climate change were made decades ago, and we know what we need to do and how, however little has been done since then.
Ultimately, participants have also agreed that we need to adopt a sense of urgency because time is running out.
There are no one-size-fits-all solutions but those that are cost-effective will best encourage countries to act.
The writer is a senior fellow of the Academy of Sciences Malaysia and member of the Governing Council of the Kyoto STS Forum