Is the Global Goal of Net Zero Carbon Emissions by 2050 Too Little Too Late?

March 20, 2020

The European Commission has proposed a new European Climate Law that will enforce climate neutrality in the European Union (EU) and ensure it is realized by no later than 2050. It will make the principles of the Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment, initiated by the World Green Building Council (WorldGBC) in 2018, mandatory in that region and force cities, states, businesses, and organizations to comply with the Net Zero Commitment.


But is it too little too late? And how much more impact will the proposed law have than widely supported global commitment for climate neutrality by 2050? Will it increase the pace at which climate neutrality is becoming a reality worldwide? Will it shape future policies in other countries and regions?


There are many questions, but with them comes considerable food for thought, even if there are no clear answers.


One of the major criticisms of climate activists is that 2050 is too far away. Many have called on the European Union to take the lead and set a 2030 target and to provide specifications on how this could be achieved. This is partly in keeping with the Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment initiated in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement in 2018, which aims for all new buildings (including renovations and infrastructure) to reduce embodied carbon by no later than 2030 and for all new buildings to be net-zero operational carbon. By 2050 all must be net-zero operational carbon and all new buildings etc. must have net-zero embodied carbon (see below).


World leaders have a crucial role to play, but in practical terms, it will be the many professionals who are involved with manufacturing and the transportation and construction industries, including designers, architects and heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning (HVAC), plumbing, mechanical, and electrical engineers that can make it happen on the ground.


The Paris Agreement


At the United Nations (UN) 2015 Conference of the Parties (COP) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC), those involved made a landmark decision to do everything possible to combat climate change and to intensify efforts required to ensure we will have a sustainable low-carbon future globally.


According to the UNFCCC website, there are 197 countries that are Parties to the Convention (plus one observer state, Holy See), all of which are also Party to the Paris Agreement, all working towards charting a sustainable course in the global effort to combat the widespread effects of climate change.


The primary aim of the Paris Agreement is to minimize the rise of global temperatures. It also aims to increase the capability of countries and regions to cope with climate change and to make financial resources available to vulnerable (including developing) countries.


A transparent framework has been developed for both action and support.


The urgency of immediate action was emphasized, and it was decided that a “global stocktake” would take place every five years to assess progress. However, the approved work program was only completed in 2018, so the first global stocktake will only be in 2023. So, right now we can’t be sure how successful this landmark initiative has been. Nevertheless, it will be a vital procedure when the time comes, and will hopefully increase action at a time when it will likely be needed even more than it is right now.


The idea is that participating countries will benefit from an intensive diagnosis of achievements and ongoing challenges that will help to accelerate and improve global climate action.


The WorldGBC’s Net Zero Carbon Building Commitments


Recognizing an extreme global climate emergency, in 2018 the WorldGBC initiated the Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement. The Commitment was that by 2030 all participating cities, states, and regions would ensure that their buildings were operating at net zero carbon, in other words without harmful greenhouse gases which are carbon emissions. The call-to-action also called for 100% net zero carbon buildings worldwide by 2050.


A year later, the Council called on the building and construction industry to take coordinated action against embodied carbon, an element that has historically been overlooked.


Their vision was to motivate the sector worldwide to go further, at a much faster rate, in its attempts to decarbonize across the much broader timeline of buildings, also referred to as whole-life carbon. This was due to an increased realization that carbon emissions from buildings don’t only occur while the building is in operation and being used or lived in. They also occur even before construction, when materials are processed or manufactured, throughout the construction process, and during the end-of-life phases of the building, when and if it is dismantled or demolished.


Accordingly, the commitment changed so that by:

  • 2030 all new and renovated buildings, including infrastructure, must have at least 40% less embodied carbon and all new buildings must be net-zero operational carbon.
  • 2050, the whole lot must be net-zero embodied and operational carbon.


Understanding the Difference Between Embodied & Operational Carbon


While operational carbon relates to the greenhouse gas emissions that occur during the operation and use of buildings, embodied carbon relates to the emissions that relate to the materials and processes used to construct buildings as well as the building itself throughout its entire lifecycle, until demolition.


This means that embodied carbon, also known as upfront carbon, includes carbonation during:


  • extraction or acquisition of materials or their components
  • transportation of materials and components to manufacturers, to the building site, and demolition yards or so-called end-of-life facilities
  • the manufacturing processes
  • the construction processes
  • carbonation of materials, including bricks or concrete, while the building is in use (ie the building itself, excluding operational carbon)
  • maintenance and repair procedures
  • replacement, refurbishment, and eventual deconstruction
  • processing and disposal of dismantled or demolished elements


According to the WorldGBC, embodied carbon will be responsible for about half the carbon footprint of buildings until 2050.


Essentially what this means for architects, designers, and professionals offering heating, cooling, and air-conditioning (HVAC), plumbing, electrical, sprinkler, or mechanical engineering services is that there is an urgent need for them to tackle issues of embodied carbon while designing buildings and building systems with whole lifecycle carbon in mind.


The New European Climate Law


By enforcing the 2050 deadline with legislation in the EU, the aim is for Europe to be the world’s first climate-neutral continent by this year, embracing a future of sustainability. The Climate Law will also compel the EU to take certain climate goals into account when all future legislation and policy decisions are made.


The EU already has tough climate legislation, and between 1990 and 2018 managed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by nearly a quarter (23%). But the European Commission warns that unless additional urgent action is taken, harmful carbon emissions will only be reduced by 60% by 2050 if compared to 1990 levels. This is why the new climate law has been introduced.


There is no reason to expect that other countries will be more successful, which is another reason to consider that all efforts globally might hinge on being too little too late!


To combat this, the European Commission aims to present an impact-assessed plan by September 2020 that is likely to increase the 2030 target to 50-55%. Then by June 2021, they will propose reviews of various other regulations and directives that relate to energy efficiency, renewable energy, CO2 emissions, and so on.


The Rest of the World


Just last week (on March 11, 2020), the WorldGBC announced there were more than 80 signatories to the Commitment, including businesses and organizations, states and regions, and cities around the world. But many more allied to the UNFCCC have undertaken to work towards achieving the net-zero CO2 2050 goal, including 73 nations and at least 398 cities.


There is clearly a realization that efforts must be intensified all round and ambitious action has to be taken. Long-term strategies are one thing, achieving short-term meaningful goals is another.


Hopefully, the commitments made so far will be carried through, and other regions will follow the example set by the EU.


Michael Tobias
Michael Tobias is the founder and principal of Nearby Engineers and New York Engineers, which is an Inc 5000 Fastest Growing Company in America. He leads a team of more than 30 mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and fire protection engineers from the company headquarters in New York City, and has led numerous projects in New York, New Jersey, Chicago, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Florida, Maryland, and California, as well as Singapore and Malaysia. He specializes in sustainable building technology and is a member of the U.S. Green Building Council.

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