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Setting the course for net-zero emissions by 2050

The quicker the transition is begun, the sooner benefits can emerge in terms of cleaner energy, less air pollution and nature under less stress

As countries set a course to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 at the latest, the road ahead will be challenging. Photograph: iStock

As countries set a course to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 at the latest, the road ahead will be challenging. Photograph: iStock


The world is tilting the balance in favour of renewable energy over fossil fuels, and facing up to its responsibilities in pursuing meaningful decarbonisation. The two missing pieces yet to be nailed down are demanding timelines for coming decades tied into targets that add up to greatly increased ambition on reducing carbon emissions; sufficient to contain global temperature rise to well below 2 degrees.

As countries set a course to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 at the latest, the road ahead will be immensely challenging. But, ultimately, it is in the best interests of the planet and its citizens everywhere.

That includes whole economies, whether it is in the developed or developing world, and those doing business. Embracing sustainability is at last regarded as the way to go, though this is about much more than just going green.

Initially, it will be costly in the pure economic sense, as people are forced to change behaviour and the price of carbon becomes more penal. That is why a just transition is so important. But the quicker the transition is begun in earnest, the sooner benefits emerge in terms of cleaner energy, less air pollution, nature under less stress and better quality of life.

In Ireland, that will come in the form of better transport choices and greener urban areas, especially when it comes to “15-minute cities” that require minimal travel among housing, offices, restaurants, parks, hospitals and cultural venues. It will be evident in a range of compelling options to warm our homes without traditional fuels – and at much reduced cost. It will also have huge implications for land use and how we produce food.

Why has it happened?

Unquestionably, the election of Joe Biden as US president, China confirming it is committed to carbon neutrality, further declines in the cost of renewables – especially wind and solar – and meaningful steps in building a global framework for robust green/climate investment have all played their part.

Remarkably, it’s only over the past nine months that many of the political enablers have emerged. The mood music for the crucial UN Cop26 summit in November has dramatically improved since the sorry outcome of Cop25 in 2019.

In many ways, businesses have been ahead of politicians, notably in embracing “science-based” targets (SBTs). This is particularly the case with many multinational companies, who are also demanding that 100 per cent renewable energy be available to power their operations. ESG – environmental, social and governance – considerations have moved from the periphery to the core of their operations.

For businesses embracing sustainability the task of reducing their carbon footprint, including direct and supply chain emissions, is now a key strategic focus. This, however, cannot be tokenism or entail limited actions dressed up as greenwashing. In a data-driven world transparency and accountability are easily measured, so there are few hiding places.

Scaling up ambitions

Seeing the number of major Irish companies signing up to SBTs and significant enhancements on sustainability under Bord Bia’s Origin Green programme as they apply to major Irish food and drink companies, are welcome developments. A scenario where environmental performance in the broadest sense is routinely audited is a big indicator of change.

While all that is welcome and necessary, latest indications suggest most countries have to increase their climate ambitions by a factor of 10 to keep global warming to within the key Paris target of 1.5 degrees – and they have only a matter of months to begin scaling up ambitions if the key 2030 target of at least a 50 per cent reduction in emissions is to be realised.

Separately, such is the ongoing toll from Covid-19 there is temptation to revert to “normal”, with its associated carbon pollution, once control of the pandemic is secured.

Too many draft “recovery and resilience plans” to accelerate EU’s transition towards climate neutrality and ecological sustainability being drawn up by member states suggest a return to business as usual. They will not deliver on promises to tackle the climate crisis, to protect and restore nature, and to build a truly circular economy.

EU states have a few short weeks to address shortcomings before submitting them to the European Commission. They should allocate at least 40 per cent of all investments to climate action and nature protection, and ensure structural green policy reforms. Applying that yardstick at this point, too many states including Ireland are short of the mark.