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Net zero emissions: study shows best options

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Net zero emissions: study shows best options

Net zero emissions: study shows best options

Only 27 more years until Europe wants to be climate neutral. But how this should work is still completely unclear.


A study in the journal Joule attempts to show a viable path. The authors coupled seven completely different energy economics but established models to find out how the EU could realistically achieve climate neutrality by 2050. Scientifically an ambitious undertaking, but other experts are not convinced.

The results of this ensemble modeling are clear to the study authors. The energy sector must be almost completely decarbonized by 2040. And by 2030, a third of final energy consumption should be covered by electricity. So far it is only around 20 percent, as calculated for 2022.

On the way to net zero emissions, the meta model predicts CO₂ emissions reductions of around 97 percent in those sectors that are subject to the emissions trading system (ETS) by 2040. Emissions that are subject to the Effort Sharing Regulation (ESR) are expected to have reduced by around 53 percent by then.

In the ETS, companies must present CO₂ certificates at the end of the year that correspond to their CO₂ emissions. Surplus certificates can be traded on an exchange.

The ESR, on the other hand, stipulates that emissions from traffic, buildings and waste that are not subject to the ETS should be distributed among the member countries in accordance with the gross domestic product per person. In addition to carbon dioxide, this regulation also includes methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, nitrogen trifluoride and sulfur hexafluoride.

The EU assumes that at least 40 percent of electricity can be generated from sun and wind by 2030. If this were to be achieved, then, according to the study, by 2050 only 75 to 90 percent of electricity would come from renewable sources. So more needs to happen to become completely climate neutral. Here the modelers bring two controversial technologies into play: biomass and nuclear power.

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The CO₂ can be separated from biomass during combustion and stored somewhere underground. It would then be included in the greenhouse gas balance as negative emissions. However, this technology, called BECCS, is still in its infancy. Nevertheless, the study authors attach great importance to it and believe it makes sense to set up BECCS systems on a large scale from 2040.

For Jochen Linßen from the Institute for Techno-Economic Systems Analysis at the Research Center Jülich, BECCS is definitely a cost-effective measure for negative emissions. However: “The sustainable biomass potential must be kept in mind and a CO₂ infrastructure with storage must be created in the EU.”

Patrick Jochem from the Institute for Networked Energy Systems at the German Aerospace Center is not so convinced: “The focus on BECCS as the only veritable carbon dioxide removal technology seems somewhat one-sided – especially in view of the large uncertainties the techno-economic parameters of these technologies.”

Gunnar Luderer, head of the Energy Systems Working Group at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, is also critical: “I consider the results of the study to be far too optimistic with regard to the medium-term speed at which biomass and CCS can be brought onto the market. The past has shown this “CCS projects are quite expensive, require a long planning lead time and often fail.”

When it comes to nuclear energy, the study authors are quite cautious with their suggestions. They only point out that the combination of models used indicates a greater importance for nuclear power.

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Based on his own analysis of the study results, Luderer finds it difficult to see a clear trend towards nuclear energy: “I consider an increasing share of nuclear energy in electricity generation to be highly implausible due to the high costs and long planning horizons. The very rapid decarbonization of electricity generation required for climate neutrality will become a reality achieved largely through renewable energies.” The path to climate neutrality is likely to cost around 2.2 percent of the EU’s gross domestic product, although future raw material shortages and crises are of course not taken into account.

This would have an impact on the gross domestic product, according to the authors. By 2050, this would develop in a range of minus 20 to plus 2 percent. “That’s an enormous range,” says Johannes Emmerling from the European Institute on Economics and the Environment in Milan. “This is not very meaningful for political actors. In particular, the assumption that the gross domestic product will fall by 20 percent seems very extreme. For example, compared to the sharp rise in energy prices in the wake of the Ukraine war, the real impact on the gross domestic product was comparatively small .”

Linßen is even more critical of the study: “It is not clear from the article how flexible electricity generation, storage and demand flexibility in different EU countries as well as electricity transport between countries are taken into account.” The import of fossil and green energy sources, such as e-fuels and hydrogen, into the EU is also not mentioned and it remains unclear whether this option is even included in the models.

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But such an ensemble model study also has its good points. Although individual models are based on different basic assumptions and technological possibilities, their coupling still has advantages, says Daniela Thrän from the Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research: “This not only expands the range of possibilities compared to a single model consideration, but it also makes it possible to see where the options for action are are very likely to be cost-optimal.”


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