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Net Zero: Transforming Economies For Livable Earth

The journey towards net zero emissions is arduous but essential. It requires collective action, innovation, and a steadfast commitment to building a more sustainable future, writes Aun Abdullah, Head-ESG Lodha

With global greenhouse gas emissions reaching record highs and the carbon budget rapidly depleting, the urgency to shift towards a low-carbon and ultimately net-zero carbon economy has never been greater. However, this transition must be undertaken to foster equitable growth, lifting millions out of poverty without imposing undue mitigation costs on them.

The term “net zero” has become increasingly ubiquitous, reflecting a collective aspiration for a sustainable future. Yet, achieving this goal is neither simple nor swift. It requires a concerted effort, but the rewards are immeasurable.

Nearly half of global greenhouse gas emissions stem from the built environment— encompassing the production of building materials, energy consumption in buildings, and city transportation. Addressing these aspects offers a blueprint for broader decarbonisation efforts needed in other sectors of the economy.

Embodied carbon in materials:

The materials used in construction, such as cement, concrete, steel and aluminium, are major contributors to emissions. While alternatives and efficiency improvements exist, significant challenges remain in reducing their environmental impact.

Cement and Concrete: Almost half of all embodied carbon of a building comes from cement and concrete. Concrete is the second most consumed item after water on earth. Unsurprisingly then 50 per cent of all human production by mass is concrete and 8 per cent of all global GHG emissions come from the cement sector alone. The largest component leading to emissions in concrete is cement, while it can be supplemented by materials like fly ash, slag, and more innovative materials like limestone calcined clay, geopolymers, other composites, etc. the emissions from cement can still come down only by 50 per cent. Ultimately, the process will need to integrate carbon capture, which is still nascent in development and far from achieving scale close to the global needs of concrete.

Steel and Aluminium: Another quarter of all embodied carbon of a building comes from these metals. While it helps to increase the recycling of these materials, it remains critically dependent upon the scrap availability and its quality. Developing countries like ours where per capita consumption of these materials has been low need to develop the scrap ecosystem that can feed these industries in the decades to come. That also is a long road ahead, however, all efforts to develop the ecosystem must start today. Until that happens the processes of primary production from the ores remain carbon-intensive and need innovation like mass deployment of green hydrogen instead of coke for iron ore reduction in blast furnaces, a feat as miraculous and impactful as the invention of Habers Bosch process at the beginning of the last century which resulted in mass production of fertiliser thereby ending the food insecurities for humanity.

Efficiency is Key:

Similarly, enhancing energy efficiency in buildings is a crucial yet often overlooked aspect of achieving net zero emissions. Passive design features and efficient equipment can substantially reduce energy demand, offering substantial emission reductions.

Energy efficiency: One of the most overlooked levers to achieve net zero emissions is efficiency. It is easily possible to reduce up to 40 per cent of energy demand by incorporating passive design features that lower the energy needs and by deploying energy-efficient equipment. The trick is to consider the demand through the whole systems lens which takes into account all aspects leading to the final energy consumption. Moreover, reducing the need for energy should get the same priority as switching to renewable energy as it reduces the burden of impact on a single solution.

Powering the Future:

Renewable energy plays a pivotal role in the transition to net zero, but its integration requires overcoming challenges related to grid stability, intermittency therefore storage.  Integrating renewable energy in a development or a process depends on many factors including associated economic benefits. While there are a host of options available, we must understand the ownership structure of the plant, its locational feasibility on-site or off-site, and the energy procurement models. Supported by favourable regulations the scale-up of renewable energy integration can be accelerated in the built environment as well as associated industries.

Us and Markets:

User behaviour: Most of the energy needs come from personal decisions like our own criteria of comfort or collective decisions like how we develop our homes, cities, and transportation systems. It is important to influence and engage each segment of society to acknowledge the need for development templates that adapt to climate change and at the same time are low in carbon emissions. Once society starts aligning its consumption patterns with its long-term survival and well-being, the path to net zero emissions will not only get accelerated but also get just and equitable.

Market development: None of the above innovations or approaches can achieve maturity unless supported by the market and having a strong business model of scaling up. Not only do we need to achieve early deployment for refinement of these technologies, but also need to encourage and build the urgency to come up with the best solutions for each type and context of the use case. By developing confidence and generating the right demand signals we can assure ourselves that, like always, the markets will do the trick.

Embracing the Challenge:

While the challenges ahead may seem daunting, they also present an unprecedented opportunity for transformative change. By embracing these challenges, countries like India can not only secure their economic growth but also emerge as global leaders in sustainable development.

In conclusion, the journey towards net zero emissions is arduous but essential. It requires collective action, innovation, and a steadfast commitment to building a more sustainable future. As we navigate this journey, let us seize the opportunity to create a world that is not only environmentally resilient but also socially just and economically prosperous.

The author of this article is Aun Abdullah, Head-ESG Lodha.

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