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Cutting global emissions is not as simple as Greta Thunberg makes it sound

Yuan-Sheng Yu, Senior Analyst
September 26, 2019

No matter what part of the world you're reading this from, there was likely a climate strike in your city recently. If not, certainly you witnessed the teenager’s impassioned speech at the United Nations’ Climate Action Summit on Monday. For analysts covering the technology developments and corporate strategies changing the global energy system, these protests bring a human aspect to the conversation that sometimes get lost in the calculations of LCOEs and analyses of startup portfolios.

Lux Research Climate Strike

Last year, Lux examined how the roadmap for decarbonization and meeting the pledges of the Paris Agreement are taking shape. With different countries in different phases of economic growth, we presented different options to pursue – energy efficiency, renewable energy, and electrification. Similarly, we analyzed four key strategies energy companies should take to reduce their carbon footprint in the potential scenario of financial penalties, such as a carbon tax.

The potential of renewable energy (solar and wind) and electric vehicles changing the global energy system is well-understood, and they are already being deployed at scale, with regulations setting their pace – albeit not fast enough to stay below the often cited 1.5 degrees threshold. However, there are still other sectors that remain challenging in decarbonizing. Ones that require significant technology breakthroughs, such as industry, aviation, and shipping, which happens to make up nearly 25% of the global emissions problem.

Industrial processes can eventually be decarbonized via energy efficiency, renewable energy, and ultimately electrification. 45% of energy consumption for industrial processes comes from the separation techniques. There are several membrane technologies that are close to commercialization that could have a high impact on reducing overall energy consumption by improving efficiency. Alternatives for stream generation are also plentiful, ranging from low-carbon to completely carbon-neutral, driven by renewable energy. Lastly, the electrification of industrial processes may be several decades away, but green hydrogen is best-positioned for decarbonizing industry as renewable electricity prices continue to drop.

Airline Pollution

Rising demand in air travel will require renewable alternatives and electrification in niche cases. While Greta’s choice of making a trans-Atlantic journey by boat rather than plane verged on the theatrical, the numbers for air travel is concerning. Aviation accounts for just 7.5% of total transportation emissions, but the industry is expected to nearly double by 2050 and is already increasing 70% faster than originally projected. By 2030, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) expects biojet fuel to play a larger role, eventually reducing the industry’s emissions by more than 50% by 2050. At the same time, electrification is picking up interest and could potentially alter short-haul flights in the near-term.

Shipping will continue to rely on fossil fuels, with renewable alternatives only able to support part of the global fleet. The International Maritime Organization’s (IMO’s) 2020 policy sent the marine sector into a frenzy, as it will be required to reduce its sulfur emissions by more than 80%. In addition, the industry is targeting carbon neutrality by 2050. While the industry will shift toward LNG, a cleaner alternative to the current bunker oil, there is no clear solution for decarbonizing the shipping sector today – the non-existent technologies that Greta said her generation will need to rely on. Bio-based marine fuels are also being explored, but feedstock supply will limit deployment to only a minor portion of the global fleet.

The impetus of decarbonization still creates opportunities for emerging technologies in the global energy transition. Despite often sensationalized success stories for renewable energies, we do not have the solutions to reach a 100% emissions-free energy system, yet. Unfortunately, when Greta said the politics and solutions needed are still nowhere in sight, in some cases it’s the sad reality. There are still plenty of technologies, such as green hydrogen production and infrastructure, stationary storage, and carbon capture, that not only need to scale up, but also become economically feasible. We’re mature enough to tell it like it is – only once these technologies reach their full potential will we move the energy system closer to a truly carbon-free state.





- Video: Capturing the Value of Renewable Energy

- Blog: Hydrogen's Role In Our Future

- Webinar: Carbon Innovation Strategies Webinar

- News Commentary: With aviation emissions increasing faster than projected and consumer demand continuing to grow, air travel is ripe for electrification

- Press Release: More Than Hype, Sustainability is Crucial for Business Innovation Leaders

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