Briefing Note 5 – How Can Innovations Reduce Emissions?


How Can We Approach Systems Change in Energy and Materials?


Systems change involves a range of diverse but key industry supply chains (plastics, steel, pulp and paper, and meat and dairy). For each of these systems truly deep change is required in the future. For example, plastic production will have to be radically rethought to be completely decoupled from the petrochemical industry. The supply chain “no longer be the plastic industry” as we know it today.


Such a transformation will require powerful and consistent intervention at varied points and for each industry these will be unique. Fortunately, research suggests that by systematically examining decarbonisation in supply chains, we can identify common leverage points. Important aspects are production and use optimisation, circular material flows, and electrification or diversification of feedstocks as frameworks for future action.


How Can We Achieve Net Zero Energy Systems?


Picking up on electrification and concentrating on the energy sector, three factors are required to reach a net zero energy system:


1. An energy supply dominated by production from renewables,

2. Electrification across systems,

3. Overall decreased demand for energy 


It is important to note that these changes should not be viewed in isolation as they will have interrelated, and often complementary, impacts.


Development of renewables, for example, can be expected to drive electrification; electrification may then lead to greater system efficiencies; and as these efficiencies reduce total energy demand for delivered energy, renewables in turn become more dominant within the supply system.


Renewable electricity prices per unit continue to fall relative to fossil fuel generation, while the cost of energy storage is also declining rapidly. Such processes are giving energy systems momentum.  


Stranded assets, particularly a young generation of coal power stations in developing countries, provide a daunting obstacle to further progress. Moreover, it should be remembered that electricity-linked CO2emissions currently represent only about 40% of global emissions. So rapid progress in renewable energy generation in countries like Germany has so far had little impact globally. However, looking ahead, a combined focus on reshaping demand and continuing to develop renewably sourced electricity offers great promise.

What Energy Improvements Are Needed for Net Zero?


Although technical innovation is producing energy storage solutions on diurnal or weekly scales, reliable storage over longer timescales poses a serious challenge, especially forcountries above high latitudes (c.50o) that have big winter heating demands. 


Current chemical and thermal energy-based answers to this problem are unlikely to be viable without work to reduce prices and improve their scalability; the priority has to be refurbishment of existing buildings to improve energy efficiency, along with climate-appropriate design and construction of new buildings to zero-carbon or carbon-positive standards. This in turn means investment in developing the skills to reinvent our built environment.


Sectors such as aviation and freight are difficult to electrify, therefore alternative energy solutions may need to be explored. It’s expected that alternative fuels based on biomass will be constrained in many places; hydrogen looks more promising.


What Are the Social Dimensions of Net Zero?


Energy systems exist to provide energy services to people and so change in the direction of Net Zero inevitably has a social dimension. 

All solutions, technical or otherwise, require people to imagine, design, implement, operate and govern them. A wealth of recent techincal innovation has opened up pathways towards Net Zero and now it is necessary to understand how to select the most suitable pathway, and how to implement them at effective scales. 


There will be regionally- and even locally-specific answers to these challenges, depending on the physical, social and political environments in which they have to be addressed.


What Does Achieving Net Zero Conclude and Recommend?

  • A framework for future action includes themes of overall demand reduction (in wealthier economies), energy end-use and energy system efficiency, circular material flows, diversification or feedstocks, and electrification using renewable generation.

  • Improvements in energy end-use efficiency bring down the cost of establishing a renewables-based electricity system by reducing demand, while electrification of heating and transport increases the efficiency of providing these services: a powerful double effect.

  • Technological innovations to reach Net Zero are only viable when there are people available with the skills to implement them, and when they have social and political support.

  • The growing awareness of climate emergency and public pressure for action are positive factors that should assist with the challenge of innovating and adapting energy services in transport and the built environment, and with moving towards a circular economy in material.