What is decarbonization?

Discover what decarbonization is, its role in limiting global warming, and the strategies involved in achieving it. Learn about the importance of transforming power generation, industry, transport, and more, and how setting decarbonization targets can help us transition to a low-carbon future.

Decarbonization definition

Decarbonization refers to the process of reducing or eliminating carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the atmosphere. The term is often used to encapsulate all GHG emissions, including carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, sulfur hexafluoride, nitrogen trifluoride, perfluorocarbons, and hydrofluorocarbons. The potency of these GHGs is measured by their global warming potential (GWP), expressed in CO2 equivalents.

The goal of decarbonization

The primary goal of decarbonization is to limit global warming to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, as outlined in the 2015 Paris Agreement. This agreement also encourages efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C. Achieving these goals requires a significant reduction in global GHG emissions, which will necessitate a shift from fossil fuels to alternative low-carbon energy sources.

Decarbonization strategies

Decarbonization is not just a technological challenge but requires a systemic approach that includes changes in market behaviors and preferences, policy innovation, and new sources of investment and financing. It requires a fundamental transformation of all aspects of the economy, from how energy is generated and how goods and services are produced and delivered, to how lands are managed.

Decarbonization of power generation

The power generation sector, responsible for 30 percent of global CO2 emissions, plays a crucial role in decarbonization. With the global population expected to reach 10 billion by 2060, and increasing electrification of society, the demand for electricity will grow. Therefore, decreasing the emissions per unit of electricity produced is essential. This can be achieved by replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, hydropower, geothermal, and biomass.

Industrial decarbonization

In addition to power generation, the industry, transport, buildings, and agriculture and land use sectors must also be transformed. These sectors are responsible for the majority of global GHG emissions and have unique challenges and opportunities for decarbonization. For instance, industries with long asset lifespans, high energy dependency, and complexity of electrification, known as the 'harder to abate' sectors, account for around 32 percent of global CO2 emissions.

To accelerate decarbonization, businesses and governments need to adopt a systems approach. This involves promoting renewable energy, developing and digitizing the grid infrastructure, establishing capacity mechanisms, and encouraging efficient storage. Moreover, businesses and organizations need to account for their carbon footprint throughout the complete life cycle, from extraction and use of raw materials to production and recycling.

Decarbonization targets

Setting and tracking decarbonization targets is a key part of this process. This involves understanding the impact of operations, establishing baselines, creating targets, executing actions, and tracking and reporting on performance against goals. Data management plays a crucial role in this process, helping to inform strategic decisions and ensure robust and accurate reporting.

Decarbonization is a global imperative and a priority for governments, companies, and society at large. While progress is being made at global, national, sector, and local levels, more needs to be done to meet the Paris targets. The transition to a low-carbon future offers a tremendous opportunity to create wealth, generate employment, improve air quality, and build a sustainable future. However, achieving this future will require concerted and coordinated efforts from all sectors of society.