The road to zero carbon: what European projects are telling us

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).

Figure. EU 2018 transition pathway.

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.

EU Calculator project (completed)

In this project the consortium tried to answer the question “How would you decarbonise Europe?”. In their view the number of pathways, technological options, behavioural changes and political reforms are essentially highly context-dependent. That is why they developed a calculator (EU Calc Transition Pathways Explorer) where each individual or, hopefully, decision-maker, can set their intended warming target and visualize the appropriate pathway to reach it. The users can tweak a number of variables (see image below). Besides the temperature rise limit (2°C or 1.5°C) they can choose key behaviours (travel, homes, diet, consumption), technology (transport, buildings, manufacturing, power), resources (land and food, biodiversity) and “boundary conditions” (demographics, domestic supply, constraints). The impact of changing each of these variables is shown on impact charts – for example GHG emissions.

Figure. EU Calc Dashboard. On the left selection of variables. On the right impact charts.

The tool allows users to comprehend the considerable amount of effort that is associated with the net-zero carbon future ambitioned in the Paris Agreement. The EU Calc explorer is therefore both a tool for sensitivity analysis as well as a powerful pedagogical resource.


REINVENT (completed)

The REINVENT consortium asked the same question as the EU Calculator project (“What will make deep carbonisation a reality?”), but focused on the sectors that have been relatively slow to decarbonise – plastics, pulp & paper, steel and meat & dairy. They looked at the entire value chains in each sector to suggest how fossil-free industry might look like in the future as well as what kind of policies are needed to bring those visions to fruition. To answer that, they placed 15 fundamental questions:

  • Overarching question:
    • What will make deep carbonisation a reality?
  • Sectors (4 questions):
    • Can we live without plastics?
    • How far towards the Paris goals would moving away from meat & dairy take us?
    • Are new technologies able to create zero-emissions steel?
    • Can pulp & paper pioneer decarbonisation and help other industries?
  • Actors:
    • Is the industry ready for a change?
    • What can governments do to make a difference?
    • Do institutional investors hold the key for a low-carbon future?
    • Are consumers and movements pushing for decarbonisation of basic materials?
  • Logics of change:
    • Will making industrial processes more energy efficient lead to decarbonisation?
    • Can we go to deep decarbonisation without reducing demand?
    • Would circular economy approaches secure a way to decarbonisation?
    • Is there a finance gap for decarbonisation and how do we close it?
  • Policy:
    • What policies are needed to make change happen?
  • REINVENT’S vision:
    • What if decarbonisation became a reality?
Figure. Overarching question of the REINVENT Project.

The responses available here are well worth checking out for their clarity. Their analyses don’t fit this article, but they do present a set of recommendations on the subject of making decarbonisation a reality. Here is a personal selection:


  1. Electrification, fuel switching, and Carbon Capture and Storage will be central to reaching net-zero negative emissions in several sectors.
  2. Reducing primary production is the only way to put less pressure on natural resources – this means less consumption or a stronger circular economy.
  3. Decarbonisation is inconceivable without reducing per-capita demand for fossil-based materials. Public policy must target behavioural changes in consumption patterns and substitution of fossil-based systems.
  4. Policies have not targeted at preparing whole sectors for decarbonisation. This can be done for example through promoting green protein transitions or creating conditions for investments in fossil-free steel-making.
  5. Green innovation will require collaboration. Trusted intermediaries can organise pilot projects between individual industrial companies to explore collective innovations.

The project team made a praiseworthy effort to provide a glimpse into a decarbonised future where an imaginary city is described in a straightforward “travel plan” manner (See Rough Planet Guide).


CD-Links (completed)

The CD-Links consortium was composed of an international team of researchers brought together to explore global and national pathways consistent with the Paris Agreement. They found that most countries are not on track to meet their Paris commitments and that, as a result, current policy efforts will not be sufficient to limit warming to well below 2°C.

The team provided alternatives that are consistent with the Paris Agreement in the form of more ambitious transition pathways.

Figure. CD-LINKS Project Summary for Policy Makers.

In general, they argued that a major change in investments patterns is required, from investments in fossil exploration to investments into efficiency and renewables. The energy supply sector, predictably, will be the largest contributor to lowering emissions. The industry and transportation sectors also have potential, driven by accelerated electrification and limitations imposed on fossil-fuel usage. On the contrary, the buildings sector is deemed less flexible as to have a sizeable contribution to the 2050 target.

To drive change, they have signalled a number of policies that, if combined, could limit annual GHG emission levels to 50 Gigatons CO2 by 2030 [1]This is however still not enough to reach the global emission level of 42 GtCO2e in 2030 consistent with having a likely chance (>66 percent) of staying below the 2°C target in 2100., instead of … Continue reading Some of these examples include the German feed-in tariff for renewable energy, the Norwegian carbon tax and the Action Plan for Deforestation in Brazil. Once again, all CD-Link scenarios require large scale carbon dioxide removal in the second half of the century.


Transrisk (completed)

TRANSrisk aimed at assessing transition pathways that are technically and economically feasible and acceptable from a social and environmental viewpoint. Often, low carbon transition pathways and their intended outcomes are portrayed as inherently positive; however, the consortium argued that there are associated risks that need to be identified and mitigated/managed in order to secure their social, economic, and environmental compatibility. They tried therefore to answer the question of which specific risks can be associated with transition pathways:

  • The economic risks are the most common risk category in transition pathways. New technologies may contribute to an increase in electricity prices or the transition may impact negatively on the overall economy.

For example, hydrogen-based steel production was estimated to be more expensive, which could translate in resource cost inflation.

  • Political risks are always present irrespective of the degree of implementation. Lack of clear, sector-specific policy frameworks may hinder technology uptake and diffusion due to lack of investment willingness.

For example, policies to support / allow road freight electrification are absent in Sweden.

  • Regulatory risks are also present. Changing regulation was identified as a significant barrier to solar PV development, while different regulations in different regions raise the cost of climate action due to transaction costs. Regulated fossil fuel subsidies make it difficult for clean technologies to compete with conventional technologies.
  • Regarding technological and environmental risks, these were considered as mostly context specific.
  • Lastly, social risks are very relevant, such as the risk of public opposition to new technologies or the marginalisation of people during permitting and construction. Moreover, there should also be provisions related to the fact that not all stakeholders will benefit equally in transitions, particularly those directly employed by conventional, high emitting technologies.

The project consortium proposed measures to mitigate identified risks, namely the importance of (1) Considering the needs of the people most impacted; (2) integrating local stakeholder’s perception of the policies and promoting their acquiescence; and (3) taking on board cross-disciplinary methods in policy-making to incorporate different points-of-view.


Naturvation (on-going)

The Naturvation project focuses exclusively on nature-based pathways to achieve net-zero carbon. The project compiled a thousand examples across Europe of nature-based governance models, financial arrangements, business models, and institutional settings to (re)naturalise our cities.

Additionally, as most often the key question is how to shift mere circumstantial examples to policy mainstreaming, the project team developed a collection of transition pathways divided into areas: climate change, biodiversity, economic regeneration, social inclusion and the sustainable development goals. Each pathway is made up of steppingstones, indicated in the scheme below.

Figure. Naturvation Project Key Steppingstones Briefing Cards.

The steppingstones are necessary actions (based on the real-world examples collected during research) to enact the change that is required to progress along the chosen pathway. Additionally, to guide policy makers and other users, the team launched a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) in Coursera on urban nature-based solutions called “Urban Nature: Cities, Sustainability and Innovation”.


Innopaths (on-going)

This project aims at generating new low-carbon pathways for the EU, based on pre-existing models, innovation systems and policy landscapes. The expected outputs are of course new pathways maximised for their technical, economic and social benefits. The following bespoke pathways have been devised so far:

Figure. INNOPATHS pathways.

The bespoke transition pathways that have been made available can facilitate the task of policymakers to see how each approach delivers the intended results and at what cost. Unfortunately, results are still incomplete, i.e., the impact assessment and optimisation of each pathway.


openENTRANCE (on-going)

The openENTRANCE project aims at developing a toolbox for low-carbon transition pathways assessment. The toolbox is based on pre-existing models focused on different areas. For example, some models are focused on macro-economic issues while others focus on the energy system. This way, complex analyses can be undertaken which result in a more comprehensive information package for policy makers on the circumstantially best transition pathway.

Figure. Open Platform diagram

OpenENTRANCE pathways include different policy choices, which is useful to understand how some decisions (i.e. more centralization) could lead to better or worse results:

Figure. OpenENTRANCE pathways.


Concluding Remarks

This brief investigation of EU projects on the topic of Transition Pathways illustrates that the EU 2018 transition pathway formulated in the “Clean Planet” strategy is not entirely off-the-mark as a generalised approach to the problem. However, as EU Calc project mentions, the number of pathways, technological options, behavioural changes and political reforms are basically context-dependent. So, even if all EU countries should strive to reach their part of reaching net-zero carbon by 2050, they should develop their own pathways that fit the needs of their economic and social situation.

But there are additional conclusions that I would like to highlight that go beyond the EU’s strategy.

First of all, we need a system’s approach. The EC or individual member states should focus their attention on changing the framework conditions where economic activity is taking place, and not so much in fostering certain green technologies. With the right institutional and policy reforms (a low-carbon driven economy), companies will change their business plans, where less carbon emissions will be an (unintended) outcome.

Second of all, societal acceptance and behavioural change (in this order) is crucial for the success of the green transition. Additionally, as Transrisk highlights, not all stakeholders will benefit equally from the transition, so they will need economic support.

Thirdly, both the future climate evolution and its impacts, as well our collective response, are characterised by a high-level of uncertainty, which makes the task of charting future courses very complex. The pathways and the underlying models should incorporate this uncertainty. As the EU Calc project so well exemplified, one should accommodate undecided variables and build toolboxes to support decision-making and manage risk.

Finally, as the CD-Links project team found out most countries are not on track to meet their Paris commitments and that, as a result, current policy efforts will not be sufficient to limit warming to well below 2°C. Therefore, besides ring-fencing 300 Billion per year for climate action (in the case of Europe), we need a similar amount for climate change adaptation.


1 This is however still not enough to reach the global emission level of 42 GtCO2e in 2030 consistent with having a likely chance (>66 percent) of staying below the 2°C target in 2100., instead of the 60 Gigatons CO2 predicted with the current policies.

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