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These are the breakthroughs we need to achieve a net-zero world

An employee works next to molten iron at a steel mill of Dongbei Special Steel in Dalian, Liaoning province, China July 17, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer  ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. CHINA OUT. - RC1EE6BD4C50

Hard-to-abate sectors like aviation, cement and iron and steel account for 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Image: REUTERS/Stringer

Anthony Robert Hobley
Executive Fellow, Strategic Engagement, Centre for Nature and Climate, World Economic Forum Geneva
Nigel Topping
High-Level Climate Action Champion, Climate Champions
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SDG 13: Climate Action

  • Most net-zero commitments are due by the 2040s but the only way to meet them is if sector leaders work together to achieve transformational breakthroughs in the early 2020s.
  • The emissions reductions achieved so far have been the easy wins; massive investment will now be needed to move from incremental to structural emissions cuts.
  • The Mission Possible Partnership is working to build net-zero industry platforms across the hard-to-abate sectors that account for 30% of global emissions.

Our parent’s generation put a man on the moon eight years after JFK’s commitment to do so in May 1961. In this decisive decade, when faced with the threat of a climate emergency, how can we do any less?

In corporate boardrooms across the world, the challenge is increasingly being accepted: climate change poses an existential threat, and the only way to survive and thrive is to join the race to a healthier, more resilient future. The response? A growing drumbeat of net-zero commitments, most of which fall due in the 2040s.

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These commitments mark an important and welcome first step. But the only way we will meet and beat them is if sector leaders work together to achieve transformational breakthroughs now, in the early 2020s. The first breakthrough, as set out by the United Nations High-Level Champions for Climate Action, is: secure credible net-zero commitments from 20% of leaders across the largest and most polluting industries before November’s COP26 climate summit.

This will drive the exponential growth of new and nascent solutions to climate change, quickening the pace of emissions reductions and resilience gains in line with what the science demands.


Beyond easy wins

The emissions reductions achieved so far have been the easy wins. Switching to renewable power and improving process efficiency are a good start. But whether in transport or in industrial sectors such as chemicals, steel, aluminium and cement, massive investment will be needed to move from incremental to structural emissions cuts.

Companies must, therefore, back their commitment to reaching net-zero with interim goals starting this decade and addressing both direct and indirect emissions. These should not rely solely on carbon offsets. Offsets will be needed in conjunction with net-zero driven pathways to compensate for emissions for the most stubborn residual emissions, but they will not be available at the necessary scale or cost to provide a realistic alternative to drastic internal emissions cuts for most companies and sectors of the economy. During company transition periods, we must additionally encourage them to adopt a platinum standard in the form of making immediate contributions to the preservation and restoration of natural sinks, in addition to their net-zero goals. Such an approach could even be designed to include compensation for historical emissions.

Collaboration is crucial here, too – between sector peers as well as investors, local and national policymakers, and civil society. Few companies, if any, can achieve deep decarbonisation on their own. For their direct emissions, they will need to work with technology suppliers to retool their plants and fleets. They will need to cooperate with their suppliers to reduce the upstream emissions that they are responsible for. They are likely to have to pass some costs onto their customers. They will need a helping hand from government through policy, regulation or with financial assistance. And they will need the support of their shareholders to potentially accept near-term costs in exchange for long-term resilience.

Mission Possible Partnership

So where to start? How can entire systems be reorientated in a competitive global marketplace where first-movers face costs that aren’t borne by their rivals?

The UN-backed Race to Zero is mobilising businesses, investors, cities and regions around the world behind robust commitments for net-zero emissions before mid-century, establishing science-based criteria to ensure the targets are met and encouraging members to work together to achieve necessary breakthroughs. Its sibling UN Race to Resilience campaign, at the same time, is shoring up private sector and local government efforts to ensure that the billions of people already at risk from the climate crisis can withstand its impacts and thrive in spite of them.

But what about the hard-to-abate sectors? How can we ensure the technologies are available at the scale and cost necessary to underpin a net-zero industry transition? Only governments can take the policy actions needed to establish the right incentives to drive the development of these technologies at the speed and scale required, but to do so they need to see a route forward for how their own national industries can compete successfully in the new international net-zero game.

The Mission Possible Partnership is working to do just this by building net-zero industry platforms across aviation, shipping, heavy-duty road transport, iron and steel, aluminium, chemicals and cement. These sectors together account for 30% of global emissions.

By working with the most ambitious 20% of companies, financial institutions and governments within each of these sectors, we believe we can generate sufficient momentum, and enough ‘leading-by-doing’, to put their entire sector on a low-carbon trajectory.

To do so, we are working with high-ambition stakeholders, within a dedicated net-zero initiative, to forge a shared vision of where the sector needs to go. Each initiative then develops a comprehensive roadmap to net-zero emissions by 2050, in five-year increments. These involve demand projections, technology deployment curves, policy needs, investment requirements, plans for asset retirements, and the role of transitional offsets and nature-based solutions, resulting in a carbon emissions trajectory for the sector/participants.

Initiative participants then commit to action, setting targets and making investment commitments focused on a 2025-35 timeframe, and based on agreed metrics to measure progress in sectoral decarbonisation. These commitments are underpinned by demand signals and procurement rules, lending and investment guidelines, and government R&D, procurement and policy development.

Then we implement, for example through collaborative R&D, zero-carbon pilot projects, green product labelling and monitoring of commitments. Within the Mission Possible Partnership this is known as the four-step process.

Net-zero industry platforms: a replicable, 4-step approach that can be tailored to individual sectors.
The 4-step process of collaborative R&D, zero-carbon pilot projects, green product labelling and monitoring of commitments. Image: Mission Possible Partnership

This is an ambitious agenda. The Mission Possible Partnership has been busy putting the pieces in place to begin the process. We have worked with our incubators, the World Economic Forum and the Energy Transition Commission, alongside cross-sector and industry-specific groupings, to form seven high-ambition industry groups which, to date, have mobilised over 400 companies.

To take shipping as one example, the Getting to Zero Coalition is already working to build pilot zero-carbon container ships, and is talking to key governments to support their commercialisation through, on the one hand, subsidies to pump-prime a zero-carbon shipping supply chain and, on the other, the identification of zero-carbon shipping routes to create demand.


What is the World Economic Forum doing to help aviation meet net zero goals?

These industry initiatives are set to show the way to deep decarbonisation, to the realisation of corporate net-zero commitments and, ultimately, to the net-zero global economy that we need to create to stabilise the climate. We welcome any company with high climate ambitions to join us and help build momentum. We welcome engagement from the investors and lenders that will finance this transition. And we welcome the engagement of governments prepared to set the rules of the road to net zero.

It is this kind of radical collaboration, new thinking and systems change that will confine the term 'hard-to-abate' to the dustbin of history. If successful, the Race to Zero and Mission Possible will be seen as our generation’s Moon Shot.

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