Net zero by 2050? This is how

UQ and Princeton University professor shares the impact of a new plan to decarbonise the US

Industrial area of a city, with carbon emissions into the atmosphere.

Image: Adobe Stock/maykal

Image: Adobe Stock/maykal

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When Dr Chris Greig was approached by Princeton University to help conduct a world-leading study into achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050, he had no idea of how impactful his work would become.

As the former Dow Chair in Sustainable Engineering Innovation and Director of the UQ Dow Centre, Dr Greig co-led a team of 18 experts from different fields and backgrounds around the globe to develop modelling tools that would help organisations and governments understand how the US could achieve complete decarbonisation or net zero emissions by 2050.

But they had to consider the cost of the different technologies they were putting forward, along with a variety of execution challenges including the US public’s acceptance of the proposals.

The team also had to consider what policies to implement and how the private sector might respond to their work.

“Given all of those uncertainties, we decided on five technologically diverse pathways – none of which we considered to be right or the best – that we figured would stand firm as five plausible ways that broadly capture the pathways to net zero by 2050,” Dr Greig said.

“We didn’t want to just do a modelling study, like so many academic studies are.

“We wanted to make this at a high level of resolution and very granular, so that readers and stakeholders would be able to really envision what a net zero transition would look like and how it would evolve on the ground.”

There was a long way to go to achieve this, however.

A wind farm at twilight.

Image: Adobe Stock/gkrphoto

Image: Adobe Stock/gkrphoto

Initially, Dr Greig said the team was unsure where to start.

They received funding from industry stakeholders, philanthropists and in-kind support from many environmental NGOs.

Financial support allowed the research team to progress the concept while maintaining their independence and integrity.

After two years of research, analysis and modelling, the team was able to release its interim report in mid-December 2020, exploring five scenarios or pathways for the American economy to reach net zero emissions by 2050.

These scenarios varied in their level of electrification of buildings and transport, their level of renewable and other low-emissions energy and negative emissions technologies, and the role that biomass and the agricultural sector could play in meeting energy demands.

The researchers created detailed maps and an interactive table where users could select variables, like location and preferred decarbonisation pathway, to discover how they could achieve net zero in their state or community.

“We developed our modelling framework, then a series of custom algorithms to downscale the model results, so that eventually, over time, with a high level of spatial resolution, we would site tens of thousands of energy assets and infrastructure items that needed to be built, retired or replaced over the 30-year transition,” Dr Greig said.

“We were also able to disaggregate the capital investment decision-making processes and track employment trends over time across states and counties in the different sectors.

“This means you’re able to get a picture of some of the issues around social justice, some of the capital mobilisation challenges, the employment opportunities and economic opportunities.”
Dr Chris Greig

The outcome of the study has far exceeded Dr Greig’s expectations.

Not only has the Biden Administration taken notice and announced a set of bold targets and policies, but the media coverage of the study has been far-reaching.

Publications such as The Economist, The New York Times and The Washington Post covered the study, along with The Guardian in the United Kingdom.

The research has also paved the way for Princeton to collaborate with partners in nations like Australia to begin their own Net Zero-branded studies.

Similar proposals are being developed in Asia and South America, and major corporations around the world have also enquired about what it means for them.

Graph text - Five approaches to decarbonisation
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Graph text - Five approaches to decarbonisation
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Initially, Dr Greig said the team was unsure where to start.

They received funding from industry stakeholders, philanthropists and in-kind support from many environmental NGOs.

Financial support allowed the research team to progress the concept while maintaining their independence and integrity.

After two years of research, analysis and modelling, the team was able to release its interim report in mid-December 2020, exploring five scenarios or pathways for the American economy to reach net zero emissions by 2050.

These scenarios varied in their level of electrification of buildings and transport, their level of renewable and other low-emissions energy and negative emissions technologies, and the role which biomass and the agricultural sector could play in meeting energy demands.

The researchers created detailed maps and an interactive table where users could select variables, like location and preferred decarbonisation pathway, to discover how they could achieve net zero in their state or community.

 “We developed our modelling framework, then a series of custom algorithms to downscale the model results, so that eventually, over time, with a high level of spatial resolution, we would site tens of thousands of energy assets and infrastructure items that needed to be built, retired or replaced over the 30-year transition,” Dr Greig said.

“We were also able to disaggregate the capital investment decision-making processes and track employment trends over time across states and counties in the different sectors.

“This means you’re able to get a picture of some of the issues around social justice, some of the capital mobilisation challenges, the employment opportunities and economic opportunities.”
Dr Chris Greig

The outcome of the study has far exceeded Dr Greig’s expectations.

Not only has the Biden Administration taken notice and announced a set of bold targets and policies, but the media coverage of the study has been far reaching.

Publications such as The Economist, The New York Times and The Washington Post covered the study, along with The Guardian in the United Kingdom.

The research has also paved the way for Princeton to collaborate with partners in nations like Australia to begin their own Net Zero-branded studies.

Similar proposals are being developed in Asia and South America, and major corporations around the world have also enquired about what it means for them.

Five possible steps to decarbonisation in the US, according to the Net Zero US study.

Five possible steps to decarbonisation in the US, according to the Net Zero US study.

Five possible steps to decarbonisation in the US, according to the Net Zero US study.

Five possible steps to decarbonisation in the US, according to the Net Zero US study.

Five possible steps to decarbonisation in the US, according to the Net Zero US study.

Five possible steps to decarbonisation in the US, according to the Net Zero US study.

A hydroelectric power station.

Image: Adobe Stock/evgenii_v

Image: Adobe Stock/evgenii_v

“There’s been this overwhelming desire by government at all levels in the US, along with corporate leaders, to get a handle on what this means,” Dr Greig said.

“The pull that’s come from the report has been quite astounding, really. Way beyond our expectations.

“People sometimes ask ‘what created that pull?’ And I think it’s the approach we took, which was to be technologically neutral, not to be pushing a particular ideology on technology, but to be saying there’s a number of ways you can get there and they all have their pros and cons and trade-offs.”

The major benefit of the study has been to governments, Dr Greig said.

Net-Zero America: What will it take to get to net-zero?

He believes the research has given world leaders a clear pathway for how to achieve net zero and a strategy that is easy for the public to understand.

“Governments around the world have been pretty good at articulating the aspiration of achieving net zero or keeping temperature rise below two degrees Celsius, but never before have they had such a visual road map or blueprint for what it might take to get there.”
Dr Chris Greig

“I think it’s been really helpful for governments to be able to look at this through a much clearer lens about what it will look like on the ground, what it’s going to take, and all the different beneficiaries and what the costs and trade-offs have to be considered. That allows them to make more informed decisions.”

The other major impact was on corporations who have long recognised the need to act but were not seeing a coherent signal from government or a clear picture of whole challenge, Dr Greig said.

He said the study left these companies with “nowhere to hide”, but acknowledged many of these organisations have been supportive of Net Zero US.

“They have to really get behind this,” Dr Greig said.

“I’ve had some long briefings with corporate boards, where it’s been all about how do they pivot, how do they reposition themselves to move forward and thrive in this energy transition.

“It seems to have made it real for people, which is quite remarkable.

“It’s not often we as researchers have that kind of influence, but it feels this time like we really have had shifted the conversation and direction on energy and climate, at least in the United States.”

Net Zero Australia launched in June 2021 and is a collaborative partnership between UQ,  The University of Melbourne, Princeton University, and management consultancy Nous Group.

Dr Chris Greig

Dr Chris Greig is the former Dow Chair in Sustainable Engineering Innovation and Director of the UQ Dow Centre, as well as Director of the UQ Energy Initiative. He is currently the Theodora D and William H Walton (III) Senior Research Scientist with Princeton University's Andlinger Centre for Energy and the Environment where he leads the Rapid Switch initiative. Rapid Switch is a global research network focused on identifying and overcoming the most critical bottlenecks to decarbonisation, which Greig initiated at UQ.

Contact details

Email: cgreig@princeton.edu
Web: acee.princeton.edu/people-directory/chris-greig



Dr Chris Greig

Dr Chris Greig

Dr Chris Greig