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The Decarbonization Paradox

Although faster technological progress can ease some of the social and political barriers to climate action, such innovation alone will not get the world all the way to net zero. To achieve that, drastic shifts in behavior and massive policy interventions will be required, including an unprecedented degree of international cooperation.

WASHINGTON, DC – Discussions about climate change contain two apparently contradictory messages. One is that it is almost impossible to decarbonize fully and fast enough to limit global warming this century to well below two degrees Celsius relative to pre-industrial levels. The other message is that, given what is at stake, such rapid decarbonization is inevitable.

Paradoxically, both statements may be true. Achieving a net-zero global economy by 2050 is technically and economically feasible with existing and emerging technologies, but it requires drastic shifts in behavior and massive policy interventions, including a degree of international cooperation that will be very difficult to attain. Although faster technological progress can ease some of the social and political barriers to climate action, such innovation alone will not get the world all the way to net zero.

The scale of the task is truly daunting. According to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, capping global warming at 1.5°C will require cutting carbon dioxide emissions by around 45% from 2010 levels by 2030, and to net zero by 2050. Doing so will require “rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and infrastructure (including transport and buildings), and industrial systems,” as well as CO2 removal.

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