The Need for Speed: Examining the Case for Rapid Decarbonization

Written by Sarthak Ahuja

Rational or Rapid Decarbonization

The need for decarbonization is undeniable, but it is crucial that we approach it with a rational rather than rapid mindset. While the urgency to combat climate change is pressing, hasty actions without careful consideration can lead to unintended consequences and inefficiencies.

A rational approach to decarbonization entails taking into account various factors such as technological feasibility, economic viability, and social implications. The chosen strategies and measures should effectively reduce carbon emissions while minimizing negative impacts on the economy, employment, and quality of life. 

The urgency of climate change can often lead to policies and actions being taken without due understanding of our material world. Let us take a cursory view of the four important pillars of our modern economy, on which our material progress and prosperity rest. Only once we understand the intricate interwoven fabric of our modern economy, and how it is difficult to rapidly decarbonize without a substantial drop in our living standards. 


Modern cement finds its use as early as 1820s. Cement is made up of Limestone and is one of the three core binding materials of concrete. In 2018 cement production worldwide stood at 4100 million tons. Producing a ton of cement releases almost a ton of Carbon Dioxide and this production of cement accounts for nearly 5& of global CO2 emissions from fossil fuels. Alternate materials in construction do not offer the same strength and durability as reinforced concrete. Moreover with rising income levels, standards of living and urbanisation in middle and lower-income countries, production of concrete is projected to surpass 5000 million tons by 2050. There is also little promise that alternate building materials offer and they are limited by cost, availability and suitability in geographic regions. It becomes pertinent to ask that should we deny safe and secure homes and infrastructure to aspiring billions who still don't have a 'pucca' roof over their head. How do we decarbonise construction without limiting the growth of the poorest quarter?


In 1850 the yield of wheat in UK stood at 1.7 tons per hectare. Today, it stands at 8.3 tons per hectare signifying a nearly fivefold increase in productivity. The credit of this outstanding achievement goes to what was named dwarf-wheat- a GMO variant of wheat introduced by Normal Borlaug. This event marked the onset of the Green Revolution which made many countries, India included, food secure. Famines and hunger-related mortality dropped sharply and indicators such as stunting and wasting improved drastically in a generation. But this GMO wheat, like other species, has a caveat- it requires intensive use of chemical fertilizers. Chemical fertilizers are largely made up of synthetic ammonia and is multifold times more dense in Nitrogen compared to organic fertilizers. As per some estimates, 50% of humanity is fed directly the diet that was grown using synthetic ammonia. No wonder, we produce upwards of 150 million tonnes of ammonia each year which stood at less than 5 million tons in 1950. The Haber-Bosch process is used to synthesize ammonia and this process results in the release of greenhouse gases. There are no other viable alternatives to manufacturing ammonia. From production to application, ammonia accounts for 1% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Given that ammonia feeds nearly 50% of our population, decarbonization of the production, rapidly or even slowly is a challenge. 


Plastics are synthetic or semisynthetic materials formed by long carbon chains & branches known as polymers. Plastics have become ubiquitous in modern society due to their cheap costs and excellent durability and light-weightedness. Plastic is not limited to toys and polybags but finds its use in medical instruments and equipment, clothing, packaging, construction, automobile, aircraft, electric, electronics, microchips and the list can go endless. Global production of plastics is upwards of 350 million tonnes and account for nearly 3.4% of global Co2 emissions. Plastics and their specific polymers have now become critical materials of certain industries and equipment- that they cannot be replaced by other materials. Moreover, plastics are extremely cheap and make healthcare, transport and household products accessible to the masses. Plastics, therefore cannot be eliminated or decarbonised rapidly. Plastics can only be produced from crude oil and few materials come close to plastics in their properties.


Steel is an alloy of Iron with variable content of carbon, silicon and traces of other elements. Compared to Iron it is weatherproof, malleable and ductile and has significantly high tensile strength- a property which makes it the most suitable material in construction. Two steel critical industries are construction and transportation. We cannot imagine towers, bridges and freeways without steel nor is any modern modes of mass transportation possible without steel. Steel also finds uses in industrial equipment, machinery and telecommunication-computing. Steel production, from extracting iron to industrial use accounts for 7-9% of global CO2 emissions coming from fossil fuels. Steel is also an indisposable component of reinforced concrete and thus the construction industry. Rapid decarbonization of steel, that is to find alternatives to it or decarbonization of steel making has no potential promising candidates. No natural or man-made material can be deployed and used at this scale, offering such strengths and flexibility in properties as that of steel.   

The case for the feasibility of rapid decarbonization must have become vivid now. We have to ask ourselves, can we actually decarbonise our economy rapidly? And if we do so, do we give up on our modern living standards? What does it mean for the poorest quarter? Do we make food, shelter and clothing expensive for them? The urgency of climate change does not warrant taking rapid action but rational actions. We can push forward decarbonization if it is in the collective interest. Rapid decarbonization will only hurt the bottom billion.

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