According to the IPCC Special Report, at current emissions (around 42 Gigatons of CO2 per year), the available carbon budget for reaching 1.5 °C will expire between 2030 and 2040, and for 2.0°C will expire anywhere between 2040 and 2050. This is the reason we need to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 and why we are fighting against time to cut the 20+ Gigatons of CO2 until 2030 (see chart).
So, we have to ask ourselves how can we undertake such drastic changes without risking at the same time the liveability, food security or quality of life of billions of people?
It is not going to be easy. But, as I have mentioned elsewhere, a clear long-term common vision of a green future is a good start. In the Paris agreement, 196 nations pledged to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible (not so clear indeed). The EU itself has set the ambition to becoming climate neutral by 2050 and prevent the worst effects of temperature increase. This 2050 climate-neutrality target has been since enshrined into law (European Climate Law).
The next step is building the road to get there – the “right” one or of least resistance. In technical terms we call this a “transition pathway”. Transition pathways consist of a coherent selection of policies, strategies and technologies that lead to low carbon innovations in one or more sectors (Lieu et al, 2020). They also equate, inevitably, an indication of the (often hard) decisions we need to take in order to move in the right direction. For example, shortening the distance food travels from the farm to our plates.
The 2018 EU strategy “Clean Planet for All” – a European strategic long-term vision for a prosperous, modern, competitive and climate neutral economy provides an indicative pathway, composed of “a number of solutions that could be pursued for the transition to a net-zero GHG emissions economy by mid-century”. Electrification of the energy supply, electric vehicles, reducing energy consumption, promoting a circular bioeconomy, and carbon capture and storage are some of the options chosen in the strategy (see image below).
As the 2030 and the 2050 climate target ambition have been increased, a new pathway strategy is expected in the Summer of 2021.
At the same time, to support European, national or regional policymaking, a wide number of research and policy-oriented organisations across Europe have been making their own contributions on the best options to deliver the 2050 target with the least amount of disruption. Providing decision-makers trustworthy estimates of what the different paths entail, in terms of benefits or costs, can take us a long way to actually achieving our goals.
In this article, I explore a select number of research projects with the objective of revealing what they have been saying about optimal transition pathways. What I have found out is that they certainly don’t provide answers, but they do provide valuable tools to help us reach those answers.