The Race to Net Zero

August 5, 2021

Weather forecast background, climate change concept, collage of sky image with variety weather conditions and planet Earth. Elements of this image furnished by NASA

It is evident that climate change is having a devastating effect on the planet. In fact, the evidence is overwhelming: debris and high water temperatures in oceans are endangering marine life, glaciers and icebergs are melting, air temperatures are reaching record highs, and natural disasters are becoming more commonplace. In response, governments and businesses all over the world are racing to address these crises by examining the most effective ways to achieve net zero by reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, particularly carbon dioxide (CO2).

Extreme Examples in the U.S. and Abroad

In late June, the Western U.S. experienced unusually high temperatures caused by a heat dome. Washington, Oregon, and Idaho are just a few states that were affected by this rare phenomenon, registering triple-digit temperatures. Late July has brought a second heat dome to the Western U.S., this time stretching out across the country. As a result, states such as California and Oregon are experiencing extreme drought and fires, and major reservoirs and lakes are drying up, particularly in California and Utah.

States such as California and Oregon are experiencing extreme drought and fires, and major reservoirs and lakes are drying up.

Daily headlines show that the U.S. is definitely not alone when it comes to extreme weather events. While parts of countries such as Canada, Turkey, Lebanon, Finland, Russia, and North Africa are being ravaged by life-threatening heat and wildfires, parts of other countries such as the United Kingdom, Germany, India, Nigeria, and China are getting hammered by torrential rainfalls and flooding. Thousands of people are losing their homes, their vehicles, and in some cases, their lives. Even some South American countries, including Brazil, Peru, and Argentina, are enduring the same catastrophic events faced by their Northern counterparts.

Cause and Effect: Two Vicious Cycles

Basically, summer 2021 is seeing GHG emissions exacerbate already extreme heat conditions. The extreme heat conditions are causing fires and droughts. The fire smoke is causing fire clouds, which are causing self-induced lightning and fire-generated thunderstorms. The droughts are causing hydrophobic soil (sun-burned soil that cannot absorb water), which is contributing to floods that are already being caused by heavy rainfall. And yes, it is the extreme heat that is also causing more evaporation of oceans and soil, which causes more precipitation and brings about the heavy rainfall. Oregon and Arizona are two states where these vicious cycles are taking place.

Climate Change, Policy Change

It is well documented that China, the U.S., and India are the top three producers of GHG emissions, with Russia and Japan ranking fourth and fifth. Fortunately, these countries, along with lesser GHG producers such as the U.K., have set short- and long-term goals to reduce their emissions output.

John Kerry, the U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, has made it clear that the U.S. should be a leader in reducing emissions.

“By 2040, we should have entirely phased out all unabated coal and oil power plants and sharply reduced reliance on unabated natural gas generation,” he said recently at a climate event in London.

John Kerry, the U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, has made it clear that the U.S. should be a leader in reducing emissions.

Kerry also cited the need for increased use of renewable sources (solar, wind, and nuclear), increased sales of electric vehicles (EVs), and advanced clean energy technologies, such as long-duration energy storage, smart grids, direct air capture, and carbon capture and storage (CCS).

While China has pledged to reach carbon neutrality before 2060, many would argue that their short-term net zero goals fall short. China is currently clinging to high fossil fuel consumption, high overall energy consumption, and a “no-policy” scenario in which the Chinese government has not and will not impose climate policies. The world’s largest producer of GHGs (30%) is indeed making major investments in renewables, but it continues to do just the same in coal.

China is also working to change the optics on its fight against climate change by launching an emissions trade market, leading the world in developing nuclear power stations and hydropower generators, and reforming its industrial manufacturing capability for cleaner, more renewable energy methods.

India has committed to significantly cutting its GHG emissions by 2030, increasing its non-fossil fuel power capacity, and substantially boosting its forest cover to reduce CO2. The world’s third largest producer of GHG says it has already achieved 21% of its pledge to reduce the emissions intensity of GDP by approximately 35% by 2030.

Russia is working towards cutting its emissions by up to 30% by 2030, and Japan is pushing for a 45% cut by 2030. Japanese climate experts are actually lobbying for a target of up to 60%, but they are getting some pushback from industry associations.

Germany’s net zero goal is set for 2045, with preliminary targets of 65% by 2030 and 88% by 2040. Its annual reduction targets for individual sectors (e.g., industry and transport) are set for 2030, and these targets are in line with the European GHG emission reduction plans.

The U.K. aims to cut its emissions by a whopping 78% by 2035, targeting industry emissions such as international aviation and shipping. This bold target would bring the U.K. within 75% of its net zero goal, set for 2050.

Transportation: The Great Transformation

In their fight against climate change, governments across the globe have recognized that transportation is one of the most feasible sectors to transition to clean energy. Consequently, the U.S. government is currently finalizing a $1.2 trillion infrastructure deal, which has allotted $7.5 billion for a national network of EV chargers and $73 billion for power infrastructure and clean energy transmission. The deal covers the electrification of public transit and school buses, development of more resilient buildings and water infrastructures, and a number of other green-friendly items.

In addition, the Federal Energy Management Program (FEMP) supports federal agencies interested in acquiring EVs and installing EV supply equipment (EVSE). Fleet and facility managers can receive training in EVs and fleet electrification, along with consultation on EVSE needs. The training program was developed by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and the FEMP Fleet team.

Governments across the globe recognize that transportation is one of the most feasible sectors to transition to clean energy.

The development and commercialization of electric planes, trains, and boats is still in the early stages. In the meantime, global auto manufacturers such as Tesla, Rivian, Volvo and Daimler have ramped up their output on electric big rigs, semis, and vans, and major retailers such as Walmart, Amazon, and Ikea are more than happy to purchase them for their transportation needs. Other automakers that are galvanizing the electrification boom include Volkswagen and its new partner, The TRATON Group, which will soon release the VW e-delivery truck and Volksbus e-Flex, and GM, which will soon supply FedEx with an initial 500 units of its new EV600.

GM Chairman and CEO Mary Barra has assured clients of the automaker’s intentions for electric fleets: “We also remain committed to our vision of a world with zero crashes, zero emissions, and zero congestion, and we believe government and commercial fleets will play a major role… Regarding zero emissions, we intend to create an all-electric future that reduces your overall cost of fleet ownership, and helps you meet your sustainability goals.”

Law enforcement and emergency fleets are also getting the electrification treatment. In many countries, electric police cars have already become more mainstream, so they are now focusing a bit more on electric ambulances and fire trucks.

Climate Experts: Not ‘Either/Or,’ But ‘Both/And’

During the pandemic, the world was able to tout a record drop in CO2 emissions due to nearly non-existent transportation activity, all but confirming that fleet electrification is a viable method in the fight against climate change. But to cut overall GHG emissions down to reasonable levels by 2030 and beyond, climate experts agree that merely switching to renewables and electrifying fleets in mass transit, manufacturing, and commerce will not be enough to help countries hit their short- and long-term GHG reduction targets. In his London speech, John Kerry did emphasize that “green energy must be scaled up rapidly for heavy industry, shipping, and aviation.” But climate experts also stress that implementing effective CCS methods in the currently primary power sector (e.g., coal, gas) and across industries (e.g., steel, fuel, chemicals) is the key to a significant and timely reduction in global GHG emissions.

While it is clear that fleet electrification is a feasible and respectable method in significantly reducing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, it is also clear that governments must work to implement effective CCS methods into their current infrastructures while transitioning to cleaner, smarter infrastructures in the global race to net zero.