What do you mean, 'Decarbonization'?

Copenhagen plans to be carbon neutral by 2025. Photo credit:  John Anes

Copenhagen plans to be carbon neutral by 2025. Photo credit: John Anes

All of the sudden, the idea of decarbonization is all over the news. 

Industrialized countries are no longer talking about merely making carbon reductions, they are finally admitting that in order to solve the climate crisis they must cut fossil fuel use entirely.

At last week's G7 summit, Germany's Angela Merkel leaned on the other G7 leaders to commit to a goal to decarbonize their economies by 2050.  Canada and Japan fought hard to water down that target, but even still Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper eventually agreed to deep greenhouse gas emission cuts by 2050 and a commitment to decarbonization by 2100. The targets may be weak, but decarbonization is officially on the table.

The concept of decarbonization is big in climate policy circles, but in practice what does it really mean?

It sounds deceptively simple: decarbonization means no more fossil fuels. But reframing the discussion to talk about zero carbon emissions and ending our dependence on fossil fuels is incredibly significant.

Modern society has evolved with fossil fuels intricately embedded into every facet of our daily lives. Decarbonization is about untangling that dependence to build a world that is fossil fuel free. To so many of us, this is a shocking idea. Fossil fuels are so bound up in our lives that overcoming the addiction sounds as likely as a providing unicorn for every household, but many countries and cities around the world are already blazing that trail.

It's significant that we're talking about decarbonization because that's what a real response to climate change has to look like. Zero carbon emissions has to be our goal. This hadn't penetrated very deeply into political discussions about climate change response until recently. Now, we are starting to see decarbonization written into international political statements and embraced as a practical goal by jurisdictions ranging from European countries to groups of mega-cities.

Decarbonization changes how we think about solutions to climate change. Instead of end-of-pipe solutions that try to tinker with minor reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, we're talking about restructuring society and the economy to end fossil fuel dependence. 

This approach has real practical implications on decisions being made today. Instead of making short term decisions that incrementally reduce greenhouse gas emissions while further entrenching fossil fuels (like building natural gas plants to replace coal), a focus on decarbonization requires investments in zero carbon solutions now.

We're talking about divorcing fossil fuels from our lives and meeting our needs with other sources of energy. We're talking about evolving our economies so they depend on modern energy sources. We're talking about societal transformation.

So keep trying to wrap your head around it - the 'D' word is on the rise.

Laura TozerComment