Net-zero emissions energy systems

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Science  29 Jun 2018:
Vol. 360, Issue 6396, eaas9793
DOI: 10.1126/science.aas9793

Path to zero carbon emissions

Models show that to avert dangerous levels of climate change, global carbon dioxide emissions must fall to zero later this century. Most of these emissions arise from energy use. Davis et al. review what it would take to achieve decarbonization of the energy system. Some parts of the energy system are particularly difficult to decarbonize, including aviation, long-distance transport, steel and cement production, and provision of a reliable electricity supply. Current technologies and pathways show promise, but integration of now-discrete energy sectors and industrial processes is vital to achieve minimal emissions.

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Structured Abstract


Net emissions of CO2 by human activities—including not only energy services and industrial production but also land use and agriculture—must approach zero in order to stabilize global mean temperature. Energy services such as light-duty transportation, heating, cooling, and lighting may be relatively straightforward to decarbonize by electrifying and generating electricity from variable renewable energy sources (such as wind and solar) and dispatchable (“on-demand”) nonrenewable sources (including nuclear energy and fossil fuels with carbon capture and storage). However, other energy services essential to modern civilization entail emissions that are likely to be more difficult to fully eliminate. These difficult-to-decarbonize energy services include aviation, long-distance transport, and shipping; production of carbon-intensive structural materials such as steel and cement; and provision of a reliable electricity supply that meets varying demand. Moreover, demand for such services and products is projected to increase substantially over this century. The long-lived infrastructure built today, for better or worse, will shape the future.

Here, we review the special challenges associated with an energy system that does not add any CO2 to the atmosphere (a net-zero emissions energy system). We discuss prominent technological opportunities and barriers for eliminating and/or managing emissions related to the difficult-to-decarbonize services; pitfalls in which near-term actions may make it more difficult or costly to achieve the net-zero emissions goal; and critical areas for research, development, demonstration, and deployment. It may take decades to research, develop, and deploy these new technologies.


A successful transition to a future net-zero emissions energy system is likely to depend on vast amounts of inexpensive, emissions-free electricity; mechanisms to quickly and cheaply balance large and uncertain time-varying differences between demand and electricity generation; electrified substitutes for most fuel-using devices; alternative materials and manufacturing processes for structural materials; and carbon-neutral fuels for the parts of the economy that are not easily electrified. Recycling and removal of carbon from the atmosphere (carbon management) is also likely to be an important activity of any net-zero emissions energy system. The specific technologies that will be favored in future marketplaces are largely uncertain, but only a finite number of technology choices exist today for each functional role. To take appropriate actions in the near term, it is imperative to clearly identify desired end points. To achieve a robust, reliable, and affordable net-zero emissions energy system later this century, efforts to research, develop, demonstrate, and deploy those candidate technologies must start now.


Combinations of known technologies could eliminate emissions related to all essential energy services and processes, but substantial increases in costs are an immediate barrier to avoiding emissions in each category. In some cases, innovation and deployment can be expected to reduce costs and create new options. More rapid changes may depend on coordinating operations across energy and industry sectors, which could help boost utilization rates of capital-intensive assets, but this will require overcoming institutional and organizational challenges in order to create new markets and ensure cooperation among regulators and disparate, risk-averse businesses. Two parallel and broad streams of research and development could prove useful: research in technologies and approaches that can decarbonize provision of the most difficult-to-decarbonize energy services, and research in systems integration that would allow reliable and cost-effective provision of these services.

A shower of molten metal in a steel foundry.

Industrial processes such as steelmaking will be particularly challenging to decarbonize. Meeting future demand for such difficult-to-decarbonize energy services and industrial products without adding CO2 to the atmosphere may depend on technological cost reductions via research and innovation, as well as coordinated deployment and integration of operations across currently discrete energy industries.


Some energy services and industrial processes—such as long-distance freight transport, air travel, highly reliable electricity, and steel and cement manufacturing—are particularly difficult to provide without adding carbon dioxide (CO2) to the atmosphere. Rapidly growing demand for these services, combined with long lead times for technology development and long lifetimes of energy infrastructure, make decarbonization of these services both essential and urgent. We examine barriers and opportunities associated with these difficult-to-decarbonize services and processes, including possible technological solutions and research and development priorities. A range of existing technologies could meet future demands for these services and processes without net addition of CO2 to the atmosphere, but their use may depend on a combination of cost reductions via research and innovation, as well as coordinated deployment and integration of operations across currently discrete energy industries.

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