The world is on a journey to net zero by 2050. What does net zero mean? What could this world look like? And what are the challenges to getting there?
March 2, 2022
Managing Director, Head of Investment StrategyRBC Europe Limited
Much in the way that today’s hyperconnected society is worlds apart from the pre-internet days of 30 years ago, life in 2050 will probably be very different from what we know today. On one important front—the fight against global warming—most countries will have tried to reach “net zero,” a state where the amount of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) added to the atmosphere is balanced out by that removed.
We explore some of the most eye-catching changes our children and grandchildren are likely to experience in key areas of their lives. After assessing the difficulties in achieving net zero, we review some investment implications.
The term “net zero” carries within it the message that even if all efforts are made to reduce human-produced carbon dioxide and other planet-warming gases, if renewables replace coal and other fossil fuels, and even if green hydrogen is scaled up massively, certain sectors for which these solutions are somewhat impractical, such as aviation or farming, will still produce carbon emissions. Emissions that can’t otherwise be avoided will need to be removed from the atmosphere via solutions such as direct air capture of CO2, or by nature-based solutions, for example, tree planting.
The line chart shows the strong uptrend of annual carbon dioxide emission since 1850, from virtually nil to a peak of more than 40 billion metric tons, and the collapse in carbon dioxide emissions that is needed for the net-zero goal to be reached by 2050.
Note: CO2 reductions necessary if mitigation had started—with global emissions peaking and quickly reducing—in 2019.
Source – OurWorldinData.org
The extent of global warming is proportional to the amount of carbon dioxide that is added to the atmosphere. Thus, to stabilize climate change, net GHG emissions need to fall to zero, i.e., net zero.
The expression comes from an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report in 2018 that called for capping the warming of the planet to below 1.5 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial average temperature in an attempt to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, such as (even more) extreme weather and potentially disastrous increases in sea levels.
Achieving this will be no small feat as temperatures today are already one degree Celsius above the pre-industrial level and continue to climb, driven by 51 billion metric tons of GHGs emitted worldwide each year. To achieve the temperature goal, the IPCC estimated that global carbon dioxide emissions must fall by about 45 percent by 2030 and to net zero by 2050.
Many countries and regional blocs, including the U.S., UK, and the European Union (EU), have committed to reach net zero by 2050; China targets 2060. Some nations have made the commitment legally binding. Meanwhile, many businesses have declared their intentions to meet this goal by mid-century.
The graphic depicts the impact on the global average temperature from various scenarios regarding emissions reduction. By 2100, if no attempt is made, the global average temperature would likely increase by 4.1 to 4.8 degrees Celsius; if current policies are maintained, it would increase by 2.7 to 3.1 degrees Celsius; if pledges are honored, it would rise by 2.4 degrees Celsius. Finally, the graph shows that greenhouse gases need to decrease substantially in order to hold the global average temperature increase below 1.5 degrees Celsius.
No climate policies: Global average temperature up 4.1–4.8° C by 2100 if no climate change policies are implemented.
Current policies: Global average temperature up 2.7–3.1° C by 2100 based on current policies being implemented.
Pledges & targets: Global average temperature up 2.4° C by 2100 based on countries delivering on pledges to reduce further emissions.
1.5° C pathway: Greenhouse gases must decrease substantially in order to hold the global average temperature increase below 1.5° C.
Note: 1 gigatonne = 1 billion metric tons. Annual emissions less than zero reflect the removal of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. Based on national policies and pledges as of May 2021, prior to new pledges made at the UN summit on climate change, COP26, in November 2021. GHG emissions include carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide.
Source – Climate Action Tracker (Licensed under CC-BY by Hannah Ritchie & Max Roser), OurWorldinData.org, RBC Wealth Management
Our descendants will live in a world that will be a very different place to how it is today, with wholesale changes in their homes, modes of transport, and the landscape that surrounds them.
Homes will likely receive 95 percent of their electricity from wind and solar versus some 40 percent in 2020. Most fossil fuel-powered furnaces and boilers will very likely be replaced by heat pumps.
Heat pumps are devices powered by electricity that extract heat from the air or ground to warm a fluid that is compressed to boost the temperature. In effect, they operate like a refrigerator in reverse.
Though the technology has been in use for some time, there are impediments to scaling it up. Heat pumps are refrigerator-sized, while installation can be costly and disruptive. Still, nearly 20 million households purchased heat pumps in 2019, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), meeting five percent of global home heating demand. The IEA estimates this share needs to triple by 2030 to meet net-zero goals.
Innovation is needed to reduce the size of the units while offering a cooling option as well as heating.
Policy support will also be needed to speed up adoption of this new technology. In the UK, from 2025, gas-fired boilers will be banned in newly built homes, while the installation of new replacement gas boilers in existing houses will be prohibited by the mid-2030s. To encourage the use of heat pumps, the UK government is offering a number of grants to households.
Homebuilding may also see big changes. Either the key raw materials used today, steel and cement, will be processed differently, or substitutes will have to emerge.
The steel and cement industries are massive CO2 emitters, each accounting for roughly seven percent of total global emissions, according to the IEA. “Greening” these heavy industries will be important to achieve net zero.
Several emerging technologies, which are close derivatives of well-understood and commercial processes used today, could yield significant emissions reductions in the medium term. In the steel industry, pilot programs are using hydrogen to complement or replace coal in the high-temperature combustion process. Meanwhile, feasibility studies suggest the use of hydrogen could substantially reduce the amount of carbon that is emitted from a cement kiln. At the same time, it appears mixing carbon dioxide with the water used to cure concrete can add usefully to its strength, meaning less cement can be used while simultaneously locking away the carbon in the concrete.
Engineered timber frames for buildings are another innovation that will increasingly be used to replace steel and cement. Cross-laminated timber (CLT) is produced by gluing planks of wood together, layering the grain of the wood at right angles. CLT was first used in a high-rise building in Vancouver in 2017, and other skyscrapers have made use of it since.
Window panes could even be made of wood. Swedish scientists found ways to extract pigments from wood, resulting in a transparent material that can be used much like glass but weighing less and insulating more.
Finally, roofs will increasingly be covered by solar panels or vegetation to provide a natural form of insulation and reduce energy consumption.
It’s widely expected that electric vehicles (EV) will be ubiquitous, but their capabilities will likely be far more efficient than today’s models.
For one, an EV that is not in use may feed energy back to the grid via two-way charging points. In this way EVs can act as an aggregated megabattery, helping the grid offset the inevitable vagaries of wind and solar power. After all, cars are idle most of the time and a large amount of battery power is unutilized.
It’s also likely that wireless charging technology will dramatically evolve, both with respect to home wireless chargers as well as the possibility of charging an EV battery even as the vehicle is being driven.
While electric trains have been around for decades, diesel engines remain the most pervasive power source and are ripe for replacement. South Korea already operates electric multiple unit trains, and it intends to phase out all of its diesel passenger trains by 2029. French manufacturer Alstom is running a hydrogen-powered passenger train service in Europe, which it expects to roll out more widely over the next several years. Meanwhile, Canadian Pacific Railway has put eight hydrogen-powered freight locomotives into service to assess their viability.
In aviation, electric airplanes are not yet practical due to the huge on-board weight of batteries. Late in 2020, Airbus announced that hydrogen-fueled propulsion systems would be central to a new generation of zero-emissions commercial aircraft. The project is a flagship of the EU’s COVID-19 stimulus package that aims to green the bloc’s economy. Airbus believes its planes could be ready by 2035, though whether their use becomes commonplace will depend on hydrogen being produced at scale and without a large carbon footprint, challenges in their own right.
The landscape of 2050 will be different beyond simply the further proliferation of wind turbines and solar panels, which have already become prevalent over the years. In cities, more green spaces to lock up CO2 will be widespread.
With homes receiving the majority of their electricity from wind and solar and a greater amount of electricity generation directed at transport, more transmission infrastructure, including pylons and substations, will be needed to carry energy to homes and factories.
Travelers may see tram-style overhead power cables hovering above a truck lane on the highway—the electric motorway. Trucks emit between 15 percent and 18 percent of CO2 emissions and German conglomerate Siemens has been at the forefront of an innovative technology to reduce this.
Siemens’ first “eHighway” was piloted in Sweden, with diesel hybrid vehicles manufactured by Scania adapted to operate with power from an overhead contact line. A similar system was also tested in Los Angeles. The UK government commissioned a study in 2021 to assess the economic and technical potential of a national rollout of this technology, which offers many advantages beyond cutting emissions and improving air quality. It can eliminate the dependency on battery range performance while increasing utilization rates as it would eliminate idle time during charging.
In addition, given that a massive reduction in the amount of carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere will be necessary, direct air capture (DAC) facilities, which extract CO2 directly from the air, are likely to be built on the edge of urban areas. These will look like rows of boxes containing fans humming away.
The IPCC suggests that to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius, around 730 billion metric tons of CO2 must be taken out of the atmosphere by the end of this century in addition to a significant reduction in emissions. That is equivalent to all the CO2 emitted by the U.S., the UK, and China since 1750.
DAC removes CO2 from the atmosphere by forcing air over a chemical that grabs CO2, then compresses, transfers, and stores it in deep geological formations. Currently, 19 DAC plants are in operation worldwide, capturing 10,000 metric tons of CO2 per year.
The problem is cost. The largest DAC facility operating today, in Iceland and operated by ClimeWorks, a Swiss firm, can remove 4,000 metric tons of CO2 from the air per year and store it in mineral form at a cost of $600 to $800 per metric ton. Scaling up the technology can bring the price down. Canada’s Carbon Engineering believes its much larger plant with planned capacity of one million metric tons per year, scheduled to open in three years’ time in Texas, can operate at a much lower cost, in a range of $90 to $240 per metric ton.
According to Carbon Engineering, DAC technology combined with secure geological storage can deliver permanent and verifiable removal of carbon dioxide from the air, reversing the emissions process, and provide sectors struggling to decarbonize, such as aviation, shipping, and oil and gas, with a potential path to achieve net-zero targets.
To reach net zero by 2050, DAC will need to be scaled up to capture more than 85 million metric tons of CO2 per year by 2030 and approximately 980 million metric tons per year by 2050, according to the IEA. To put the level of infrastructure in place to realize these goals will require targeted government support including grants and public procurement.
A cheaper option to remove CO2 is planting trees, and reforestation efforts have increased in recent years. The IPCC suggests that increasing the total area of the world’s forests, woodlands, and woody savannahs could store around one-quarter of the atmospheric carbon necessary to limit the rise in the global average temperature below 1.5 degrees Celsius—though this would require adding up to 24 million hectares of forest (roughly the size of the U.S. state of Oregon) every year from now until 2030.
Recent national reforestation efforts are nowhere near that level, despite several countries having announced ambitious plans. But people in 2050 are nevertheless likely to see more woodland areas. Encouragingly, the shift toward plant-based diets may free up to 20 percent of farmland for other uses, according to the UK’s Climate Change Committee, a statutory body.
Planting trees may be cost-effective but it may not be the most efficient method to pull CO2 from the air, given how large reforestation areas have to be in order to make a difference. Moreover, trees can burn in wildfires or be cut down, causing much of the stored carbon to be released. Simply, reforestation cannot reduce emissions on its own.
Engineered timber frames
Source – RBC Wealth Management
Achieving net zero is a huge task with enormous challenges, as we described in a recent article on the green energy transformation.
One of these is the hefty price tag. A 2019 World Bank estimate suggested the necessary global infrastructure investment would cost $90 trillion. Spread over 30 years, this would amount to about 0.2 percent to 0.3 percent of GDP per annum, which is manageable, in our view. Moreover, the same study also estimated that the investment could be recouped four times over.
Certainly, the cost of inaction could very well be higher than the investment needed. Reinsurer Swiss Re recently estimated that the global economy could be seven percent to 10 percent smaller in 2050 than now as a result of the cost of climate change (including the damage from extreme weather), as well as parts of the planet becoming uninhabitable, fueling hunger and migration.
Though the solutions for countries to achieve net zero do exist, or are in early development, many need to be scaled up, a process that is capital intensive and fraught with difficulties. It is an encouraging sign that at the recent UN climate summit, COP26, not only did nations pledge to meet net-zero targets by 2050, but so did more than 5,000 businesses.
That said, just as the uptake of both solar and wind energy over the past two decades was encouraged by policy support, such as tax credits, subsidies, and government-backed loans, the same approach and resolve will be needed to help these technologies become commercialized.
For investors, this represents both risks and opportunities. Our view is that investors should maintain a pragmatic approach given the serious gaps between net-zero ambitions and potential outcomes. High-emissions companies that do not adapt are likely to incur difficulties. Those that adapt or develop new technologies, if given support to reach commercialization, will likely find themselves in a position to benefit from this transformation.
This publication has been issued by Royal Bank of Canada on behalf of certain RBC ® companies that form part of the international network of RBC Wealth Management. You should carefully read any risk warnings or regulatory disclosures in this publication or in any other literature accompanying this publication or transmitted to you by Royal Bank of Canada, its affiliates or subsidiaries.
The information contained in this report has been compiled by Royal Bank of Canada and/or its affiliates from sources believed to be reliable, but no representation or warranty, express or implied is made to its accuracy, completeness or correctness. All opinions and estimates contained in this report are judgments as of the date of this report, are subject to change without notice and are provided in good faith but without legal responsibility. This report is not an offer to sell or a solicitation of an offer to buy any securities. Past performance is not a guide to future performance, future returns are not guaranteed, and a loss of original capital may occur. Every province in Canada, state in the U.S. and most countries throughout the world have their own laws regulating the types of securities and other investment products which may be offered to their residents, as well as the process for doing so. As a result, any securities discussed in this report may not be eligible for sale in some jurisdictions. This report is not, and under no circumstances should be construed as, a solicitation to act as a securities broker or dealer in any jurisdiction by any person or company that is not legally permitted to carry on the business of a securities broker or dealer in that jurisdiction. Nothing in this report constitutes legal, accounting or tax advice or individually tailored investment advice.
This material is prepared for general circulation to clients, including clients who are affiliates of Royal Bank of Canada, and does not have regard to the particular circumstances or needs of any specific person who may read it. The investments or services contained in this report may not be suitable for you and it is recommended that you consult an independent investment advisor if you are in doubt about the suitability of such investments or services. To the full extent permitted by law neither Royal Bank of Canada nor any of its affiliates, nor any other person, accepts any liability whatsoever for any direct or consequential loss arising from any use of this report or the information contained herein. No matter contained in this document may be reproduced or copied by any means without the prior consent of Royal Bank of Canada.
Clients of United Kingdom companies may be entitled to compensation from the UK Financial Services Compensation Scheme if any of these entities cannot meet its obligations. This depends on the type of business and the circumstances of the claim. Most types of investment business are covered for up to a total of £85,000. The Channel Island subsidiaries are not covered by the UK Financial Services Compensation Scheme; the offices of Royal Bank of Canada (Channel Islands) Limited in Guernsey and Jersey are covered by the respective compensation schemes in these jurisdictions for deposit taking business only.