Decarbonization Explained: All You Need to Know

Decarbonization Explained: All You Need to Know

By
Grace Smoot

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Decarbonization is a vital part of ensuring a sustainable planet for future generations because it targets carbon dioxide (CO2), our most prevalent greenhouse gas (GHG). So, we had to ask: What is decarbonization really, and how could it help us mitigate climate change?

Decarbonization means reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. We are not currently on track to decarbonize enough by 2050 to meet the Paris Climate Agreement targets. Experts have stressed we must go one step further and reduce all greenhouse gas emissions to achieve net zero.

Keep reading to find out all about what decarbonization is, how we can achieve it, why it is important to mitigate climate change, if we are on track to achieve it soon enough, how it relates to the Paris Climate Agreement, and how you can personally help to decarbonize the planet.

The Big Picture of Decarbonization

Decarbonization is one of the most common terms used when discussing climate change. Experts have deemed it necessary to avoid the worst effects of climate change. 

What decarbonization meansDecarbonization refers to the process of reducing carbon emissions, specifically carbon dioxide (CO2).
How we could achieve decarbonizationAchieving decarbonization is a two-part approach. First, conventional mitigation techniques are used to reduce carbon emissions as much as possible. Second, carbon offsets are used to reduce emissions beyond what we can achieve through individual actions. 
Why decarbonization is important to mitigate climate changeAchieving decarbonization is important because removing more CO2 than we emit reduces the overall concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere. High levels of atmospheric CO2 exacerbate and accelerate global warming.
What the current status of decarbonization isWe are not currently on track to reach decarbonization by 2050, the target date identified in the Paris Climate Agreement.The concentration of atmospheric CO2 is currently 50% higher than pre-industrial levels, measuring over 400 parts per million. And under current conditions, global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (including CO2) are projected to increase by 9% by 2030.
How decarbonization relates to the Paris Climate AgreementThe Paris Climate Agreement (PCA) commits all member nations to decarbonize. It also goes one step further and marks the beginning of a shift towards a net-zero emissions world by laying out a framework to limit temperature rise to below 2°C.

What Does Decarbonization Mean

Decarbonization refers to the process of reducing carbon emissions, specifically carbon dioxide (CO2).

“Decarbonization: the process of stopping or reducing carbon gasses, especially carbon dioxide, being released into the atmosphere as the result of a process, for example the burning of fossil fuels”

Cambridge Dictionary

When you hear the words “decarbonization”, think about the words “reducing carbon”. Decarbonizing our society involves reducing our consumption and switching to low-carbon emission technologies (e.g., renewable energy).

Essentially, decarbonization involves finding alternative ways of existing that produce fewer carbon emissions.

How Could We Achieve Decarbonization

Achieving decarbonization is a two-part approach.

  • First, conventional mitigation techniques are used to reduce carbon emissions as much as possible;
  • Second, carbon offsets are used to reduce emissions beyond what we can achieve through individual actions. 
Illustration of Staying Below 1.5 Degrees of Global Warming from World Resources Institute
World Resources Institute: Staying Below 1.5 Degrees of Global Warming

Decarbonization focuses on reducing reliance on fossil fuels, which are responsible for approximately 36 billion tons of CO2 emissions every year. Fossil fuels also have high carbon footprints, with oil emitting 970, coal 820, and natural gas 490 grams of CO2 equivalent per kilowatt hour (gCO2 per kWh) on a life-cycle basis.

In contrast, renewable energy (e.g., solar, wind, hydropower, geothermal, tidal, wave, and biomass) has a carbon footprint ranging from 11 to 740 gCO2 per kWh of electricity produced, depending on the source. 

Have a look at the illustration below to compare the average life-cycle CO2 equivalent emissions from the different types of energy.

Illustration of the Average life-cycle CO2 equivalent emissions from World Nuclear Association
World Nuclear Association: Average life-cycle CO2 equivalent emissions

The second part of decarbonization includes the use of carbon offsets to balance out emissions that are hard to reduce or are unavoidable. When you hear the words “carbon offset”, think about the term “compensation”. Essentially, carbon offsets are reductions in carbon emissions that are used to compensate for emissions occurring elsewhere

Carbon Offset: a way for a company or person to reduce the level of carbon dioxide for which they are responsible by paying money to a company that works to reduce the total amount produced in the world, for example by planting trees”

Oxford Dictionary

They are measured in tons of carbon dioxide equivalents and are bought and sold through international brokers, online retailers, and trading platforms

Some of the most common carbon offsets include:

Related: Are you interested in learning more about carbon offsets? Check it out in this article here: “Best Carbon Offsets (Complete 2024 List)

Why Is Decarbonization Important to Mitigate Climate Change

Decarbonization is important because if we don’t reduce CO2 emissions, global temperatures will continue to rise and exacerbate the negative side effects of climate change.

How is Climate Change Defined

Climate change is arguably the most severe, long-term global impact of CO2. Every year, we emit approximately 37 billion tons of CO2. The carbon found in fossil fuels reacts with oxygen in the air to produce CO2

Climate change: changes in the earth’s weather, including changes in temperature, wind patterns, and rainfall, especially the increase in the temperature of the earth’s atmosphere that is caused by the increase of particular gasses, especially carbon dioxide.

Oxford Dictionary

When carbon enters the atmosphere, it absorbs sunlight and solar radiation, trapping the heat and acting as an insulator for the planet.

Since the Industrial Revolution, Earth’s temperature has risen a little more than 1 degree Celsius (°C), or 2 degrees Fahrenheit (°F). Between 1880-1980 the global temperature rose by 0.07°C every 10 years. This rate has more than doubled since 1981, with a current global annual temperature rise of 0.18°C, or 0.32°F, for every 10 years.

How Does Decarbonization Specifically Help Mitigate Climate Change

The global average concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere today registers at over 400 parts per million, the highest ever recorded. Decarbonization can reduce this total and mitigate the following negative effects of climate change: 

Experts claim that to avoid a future plagued by rising sea levels, acidified oceans, loss of biodiversity, more frequent and severe weather events, and other environmental disasters brought on by the hotter temperatures, we must limit global warming to 1.5°C by 2040

The more we reduce CO2 emissions, the more we slow the rate of temperature rise, sea-level rise, ice melting, and ocean acidification. When these rates are slowed, the earth’s biodiversity does not have to struggle to adapt to temperature and pH changes. People will not be displaced due to the flooding of coastal areas. And icebergs will continue to provide climate regulation. 

Are We on Track to Achieve Decarbonization Soon Enough

We are not currently on track to reach decarbonization by 2050, the target date identified in the Paris Climate Agreement. CO2 emissions are predicted to continue to rise despite global, growing momentum and support for the decarbonization movement. 

What Is the Current Projection of Carbon Emissions

The concentration of atmospheric CO2 is currently 50% higher than pre-industrial levels, measuring over 400 parts per million. And under current conditions, global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (including CO2) are projected to increase by 9% by 2030.

Illustration of annual CO2 emissions
Our World in Data: Annual CO2 Emissions

The COVID-19 pandemic triggered the largest decrease in energy-related carbon emissions since World War II, a decrease of 2 billion tons. However, emissions rebounded quickly at the end of 2020, with levels in December ending 60 million tons higher than those in December 2019. This indicates that the earth is still warming at an accelerated rate, and not enough is being done to mitigate climate change.

What Needs to Happen to Achieve Decarbonization in Time

Achieving decarbonization in time will require us to drastically cut carbon emissions across all sectors of the world’s economy, including the energy, transportation, and food industries. 

Decarbonization includes ceasing the use of fossil fuels and switching to low-carbon energy sources, reducing deforestation and food waste, and investing in clean energy and energy efficiency. 

Illustratration of 10 Key Solutions Needed to Mitigate Climate Change from World Resources Institute
World Resources Institute: 10 Key Solutions Needed to Mitigate Climate Change

We can also decarbonize via the use of carbon offsets. Carbon offsets play an important role in mitigating the effects of global climate change by reducing carbon emissions beyond what we can achieve through individual actions. 

Two of the most effective technological GHG removal solutions are direct carbon capture and carbon mineralization

  • Direct carbon capture company Climeworks has technology that pulls CO2 from the air whilst their carbon mineralization partner, Carbfix, turns captured CO2 into stone by dissolving it in water and injecting it underground where it reacts with basalt rock to form solid minerals. The process locks away CO2 for thousands of years with no long-term monitoring required.

Some of the most effective natural carbon removal solutions are reforestation, afforestation, and blue carbon.

Is There a Global Effort to Reach Decarbonization

Experts have stressed that reducing just CO2 emissions will be insufficient to mitigate climate change in the long term. Instead, the focus has shifted towards achieving net zero

Whereas decarbonization focuses only on balancing CO2 emissions, net zero aims to balance all GHGs [CO2, methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), and fluorinated gasses (F-gasses)] entering and exiting our atmosphere.

Net zero is now the internationally agreed-upon goal for mitigating global warming in the second half of the 21st century

As the climate crisis continues to worsen, momentum and support for the global decarbonization effort continue to grow. Over 9,000 companies, 1,000 cities, 1,000 educational institutions, and 600 financial institutions have joined the cause and pledged immediate action to cut global emissions by 50% by 2030.

Related: Are you interested in learning more about net zero? Check it out in this article here: “Net Zero Explained: All You Need to Know

Which Countries Have Decarbonization Targets

In recognizing the severity of the current climate crisis, many countries have gone above decarbonization and have pledged to become net zero. To date, over 140 countries have stated a net zero target, covering roughly 88% of the world’s GHG emissions. 

The countries with some of the most ambitious decarbonization targets include:

  • Finland: Achieve decarbonization by 2035
  • Austria: Achieve decarbonization by 2040
  • Sweden: Cut GHG emissions by 59% by 2030 and achieve decarbonization by 2045
  • United Kingdom: Cut GHG emissions by 68% by 2030 and achieve decarbonization by 2050
  • Iceland: Cut GHG emissions by 55% by 2030 and achieve decarbonization by 2050
  • New Zealand: Achieve decarbonization by 2050
  • France: Achieve decarbonization by 2050

Climate Watch has also developed a net zero tracker that shows each country’s policy documents, their GHG emission targets, and steps they have taken to achieve decarbonization. 

Illustration for Net-Zero Tracker from Climate Watch
Climate Watch: Net-Zero Tracker

Decarbonization and the Paris Climate Agreement

The Paris Climate Agreement (PCA) is the most well-known piece of legally binding, global, international climate mitigation legislation. It aims to limit global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius (°C), preferably to 1.5°C, compared to pre-industrial levels. 

You can check out the highlights of the 2015 COP21 directly from the UN Climate Change channel here:

Two Weeks of COP 21 in 10 Minutes

The PCA dictates we must cut current greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 50% by 2030 and reach decarbonization by 2050 to prevent the worst effects of climate change. 

Does the Paris Climate Agreement Commit Countries to Achieve Decarbonization

The Paris Climate Agreement (PCA) commits all member nations to decarbonize. It also goes one step further and marks the beginning of a shift towards a net-zero emissions world by laying out a framework to limit temperature rise to below 2°C.

In the short term, the PCA requires member parties to produce Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), or national climate action plans specific to that party. NDCs dictate actions a party will take to reduce GHG emissions in accordance with PCA goals. Every 5 years, there is an evaluation of collective efforts towards achieving the goals of the PCA and to plan further actions.

In the long term, the PCA sets goals to guide all parties to:

  • Limit global warming to below 2°C, preferably to 1.5°C
  • Keep track of the collective progress of all parties towards achieving the purpose of the PCA
  • Provide financing for developing countries to mitigate climate change

In terms of accountability, there are no hard enforcement measures (e.g., financial penalties) associated with the PCA. Although there are mandatory measures for monitoring, verification, and public reporting of climate mitigation progress for each party, the PCA largely relies on international cooperation and peer pressure to prevent any hypothetical “dragging of feet”.

Which Legislations Are Put In Place to Help Achieve Decarbonization

The most well-known and encompassing piece of legislation put in place to achieve decarbonization is the Paris Climate Agreement (PCA), which emphasizes we must cut current GHG emissions by 50% by 2030 and reach decarbonization by 2050 to avoid the worst climate impacts. 

Race to Zero is a global campaign backed by the United Nations Framework Convention On Climate Change (UNFCCC) with the same end goals as the PCA. But whereas the PCA is composed of nations, Race to Zero comprises non-state actors (e.g., companies, cities, financial/educational/healthcare institutions). To date, over 13,000 members have joined the campaign to race towards decarbonization and a more sustainable future.

Decarbonization relies heavily on switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy, which the PCA also identifies as a critical part of meeting its goals. There are many global and country-specific policies and organizations aimed at increasing the use of renewable resources (e.g., solar, wind, hydropower, geothermal, tidal, wave, and biomass) including:

  • 1974 – The International Energy Agency (IEA): The IEA was founded in response to the major oil disruptions in 1974. It promotes international energy cooperation and is made up of 31 member countries. 
  • 1988 – The International Geothermal Association (IGA): The IGA is a leading, global organization that promotes geothermal energy as a vital part of the transition away from fossil fuels. Today, the IGA has over 5,000 members and 30 affiliate organizations.
  • 2005 – Global Wind Energy Council (GWEC): The GWEC was founded as an international trade association for the wind energy industry. Their members represent 99% of the global installed wind power capacity.
  • 2008 – World Bioenergy Association (WBA): The World Bioenergy Association was founded to sustainably develop bioenergy globally and promote the business environment of bioenergy. 
  • 2009 – The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA): IRENA was founded as a global intergovernmental agency focused on scaling renewable energy. It is comprised of 167 member countries as well as the European Union.
  • 2013 – Ocean Energy Europe (OEE): They are the largest global network of marine energy professionals, with over 120 member organizations. They aim to advance tidal and wave energy technologies. 
  • 2015 – International Solar Alliance (ISA): The ISA is a treaty-based organization established to create cooperation among solar energy-resource-rich countries and the rest of the world. There are currently 94 member countries.
  • 2023 – Global Biofuel Alliance (GBA): The GBA was launched at the G20 summit as an alliance between 19 countries and 12 international organizations to advance the development of sustainable biofuels. 

If you are interested in learning more about country-specific renewable energy policies, you can visit the IEA’s policies database and filter by specific energy type.

Related: Are you interested in learning more about renewable energy? Check it out in this article here: “Renewable Energy Explained: All You Need to Know

How You Can Personally Help to Achieve Decarbonization

Decarbonization can instigate meaningful environmental change and begin to reverse some of the effects of climate change because it reduces the amount of CO2 entering our atmosphere. In turn, this slows the rate of global warming.

One of the easiest and most meaningful ways to contribute to the decarbonization movement is to reduce your carbon footprint. These reduction measures don’t have to involve drastic changes either. Actions that may seem small can have a big impact because those small changes add up! You can directly reduce your carbon footprint in three main areas of your life: household, travel, and lifestyle. 

Reduce your household footprint:

Reduce your travel footprint:

  • Walk or bike when possible: The most efficient ways of traveling are walking, bicycling, or taking the train. Using a bike instead of a car can reduce carbon emissions by 75%. These forms of transportation also provide lower levels of air pollution.

Reduce your lifestyle footprint:

  • Switch to renewable energy sources: The six most common types of renewable energy are solar, wind, hydro, tidal, geothermal, and biomass energy. They are a substitute for fossil fuels that can reduce the effects of global warming by limiting global carbon emissions and other pollutants.
  • Recycle: Recycling uses less energy and deposits less waste in landfills. Less manufacturing and transportation energy costs means less carbon emissions generated. Less waste in landfills means less CH4 is generated.
  • Eat less meat and dairy: Meat and dairy account for 14.5% of global GHG emissions, with beef and lamb being the most carbon-intensive. Globally, we consume much more meat than is considered sustainable, and switching to a vegan or vegetarian diet could reduce emissions. 
  • Take shorter showers: Approximately 1.2 trillion gallons of water are used each year in the United States just for showering purposes, and showering takes up about 17% of residential water usage. The amount of water consumed and the energy cost of that consumption are directly related. The less water we use the less energy we use. And the less energy we use, the less of a negative impact we have on the environment.

After reducing your carbon footprint as much as possible, you can then turn to carbon offsets. But with thousands of different offsets and offset companies to choose from, how can we buy carbon offsets that will make a difference? 

Purchasing carbon offset projects that are additional, permanent, effective, meet key criteria and project standards, and do not engage in greenwashing can actually make a difference. Climeworks, Terrapass, Gold Standard, and Ecologi are just some of the organizations with the best carbon offset projects.

Related: Are you interested in learning more about how to buy effective carbon offsets? Check it out in this article here: “How to Buy Carbon Offsets That Actually Make a Difference

Final Thoughts

Decarbonization refers to the process of reducing carbon emissions, specifically carbon dioxide (CO2). Achieving decarbonization is a two-part approach. First, conventional mitigation techniques are used to reduce carbon emissions as much as possible. Second, carbon offsets are used to reduce emissions beyond what we can achieve through individual actions. 

We are not currently on track to reach decarbonization by 2050, the target date identified in the Paris Climate Agreement. In addition, experts have stressed that reducing just CO2 emissions will be insufficient, we must target all GHGs to achieve net zero. Net zero is now the internationally agreed-upon goal for mitigating global warming in the second half of the 21st century.

One of the easiest and most meaningful ways to contribute to decarbonization is to reduce your personal carbon footprint. Small actions add up, such as washing in cold water, switching to renewable energy, or eating less meat. 

Stay impactful,

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