I recently enrolled in Terra.do’s Climate School. Our First Assignment was imagining how we might get to Carbon Zero by 2040. As you will see I’m optimistic.
Carbon Zero: How we did it.
Eighteen years ago it was far from assured we would keep greenhouse gases under the level to keep warming below 1.5deg C. The road here involved every aspect of our economies and society. Lets look a how innovation and policy, affected Electricity and Heat, Transport, Built Environment, Sequestration / Carbon Markets.
The degree to which governments played a role varied country to country, with some seeing the warming in of itself as worthy of action, others recognizing the geo-strategic importance and or simply the cost effectiveness of local green energy. The biggest hurdle was Russia, whose economy was not only heavily dependent on the selling of natural gas, but which calculated that a warmer world would mean more arable land for russian crops and full year access to ports on its Arctic coast. Fortunately for us this was unacceptable to what became known as the geo-conservative hawks in Washington, who effectively framed climate change as a fight against Russia, thus getting the consensus needed for climate to have its Kennedy-Regan-Roosevelt moment in the US.
In the EU and UK, which lead the curve in reductions of CO2e and adoptions of green tech, electric cars started to outsell ICE vehicles back in 2021. Combined with the banning of short haul flights, its already extensive rail network and the the use of green hydrogen trucking for the few routes where electric hauling was not feasible, the region got to zero emissions for transport by the mid 20’s. A key turning point was Germany’s decision at the last minute to cancel Nord Stream 2 and instead support France’s push for small scale nuclear, Denmark’s combined wind and wave energy islands for hydrogen, and North–South high capacity transmission lines to bring energy from photovoltaics from the Mediterranean and Sahara to sun starved northern Europe. Europe eventually would find clean energy in every place it could, even installing mini turbines by rail and motorways to recapture wind energy of moving vehicles.
The most critical part of this transition was the hyperbolic decline in the cost and increase in effectiveness of solar and battery technologies, which meant that for all but the most northern countries building anything else for power generation became financially irresponsible. By the mid to late 20’s small island nations which had before run on imported coal or oil, and which were of course to be the most affected by sea level change, were shifting in droves to solar+batter grids. Part of this shift was funded by climate focused decentralized autonomous organizations made of people who saw that such an investment was moral and intelligent. For Jamaica this source of cheap electricity enabled it to shift from aluminum oxide export to aluminium manufacture, which brought higher paying jobs and kickstarted a Jamaican growth to a middle income country.
This pattern of cheaper electricity enabling countries and regions to break from the resource curse and become manufacturing hubs also played out in regions of Africa that were well suited to the decentralizability of solar and wind, which allowed villages and small towns to gain reliable electricity without requiring a centralized effort from the state. (Ill point out here that coupled with the supply chain shortages of ‘20–21 inspired moves to more local/regional supply chains meant less global movement of goods, which helped reduce demand on long distance shipping)
Already suffering from extreme heat, India took its high tech expertise, decentralized solar and necessity to mandate a transition to small cheap electric trucks of mostly domestic manufacture. Rather than have separate grid level batteries most of India’s energy storage would come from these trucks stationary capacity.
In the North America the shift to majority new car sales as electric occured in 2026 and just a few years later ICE powered car demand fell drastically (eventually to almost zero by 2035) as the cost of ownership turned out to be far to high for ICErs once electric cars reached sub $20k sticker prices. Of course there were hold outs in the US but with China banning ICE cars, by 2032 ever major market was dominated by electric cars. The difficulty of the shift to electric transport is that it meant that the shift away from coal went slower than any of us would have wanted. Despite China and the US each installing masive amounts solar, wind, and geothermal (and thorium nuclear in China) a substantial amount of both countries energy needs continued to come from coal, although decreasing as a percentage of energy generation, thru the 2030s.
Of course Power and Transport are not the only sources of greenhouse gasses. Our buildings, particularly concrete production, have CO2 as big by product. The shifts away are bioregion specific but, new building materials based on Hemp and Bamboo, and LVL + Cross-Lambinated timber construction played a central role in new building construction. While new forms of CO2-free concrete like carbicrete, were used in non building construction like roads and bridges. These hemp and bamboo based building techniques had the advantage that there we fast growing and CO2 absorbing. which meant new buildings became carbon sinks. Which brings us to the final part of how we got here, Carbon Sequestration and Markets and their limits.
In the late 2010’s and early 2020’s services which enabled carbon offsetting via forestry found explosive growth. While wonderful for preserving old growth forest’s and their biodiversity, their ability to scale as a solution for carbon sequestration was limited however by A) the limit of land which would actually support forest growth, and B) the findings that tree growth was not necessarily carbon negative in the forests early stages. Trees would not save us. But the capital going into such projects wanted to be productive and was invested in kelp farms, forest preservation, and new bio-chemical processes like carbon -> starch synthesis. In the end this is how the US and China got to net zero yearly carbon emissions. and how they aim to got to net zero historical carbon liabilities by 2060.
Finally while these big changes get the attention, one small change which has had massive impact in the US particularly has been the movement to retrofit suburbia for walkability. Beginning with the western states, bans were placed limiting municipalities from preventing property owners in formerly single family zoned areas from turning their property into a shop. Neighborhood cafes, grocers, pubs, and pharmacists sprung up turning places which were once inaccessible without a car into true communities, with teens working within walking distance to their homes instead of needing their own vehicle to work. Eventually these neighborhoods built more and more non-car infrastructure, although the US still remains car centric, it is less so than 20 years ago.