The Great Decarbonization

In the last installment of our special report on sustainability, we look a how greenhouse gas reduction takes center stage with manufacturers—along with national, state, and local governments.

As the localized impacts of climate change become more existential, it’s clear that we must break our addiction to fossil fuels. It’s time to think about decarbonization—the full-scale elimination of all greenhouse gas emissions.

In 2021, many hopeful data trends emerged. Cities have taken real action to phase out natural gas, for example, in favor of electrification. Electricity, goes the thinking, can be created from sunlight. But there’s still a long way to go, as only 1 percent of homes today are net zero. The Climate Change tipping point is upon us.

Powering Up Decarbonization

Climeworks exterior-featured

Orca is the world’s largest direct air capture plant, capable of eliminating 4,000 tons of CO2 from the atmosphere each year. It’s also aptly named: “Orca” is the Swiss word for “energy.” Courtesy Climeworks

There are actually two types of decarbonization—engine and energy. Although they achieve the same ends, they are different processes.

According to carbon offset service provider Terrapass, engine decarbonization involves removing built-up carbon residue that accumulates in internal combustion engines from fossil fuels that release carbon when they are burned. 

The residue is physically scraped off by a professional technician, or a chemical solvent can be poured into the gas tank. It’s not meant to be done on a regular basis, and most vehicles manufactured within the past 15-plus years comply with emissions standards that also reduce the amount of accumulated carbon.

Electricity decarbonization has the same basic principle as engine decarbonization: removing carbon from the system. However, the main difference is that removing CO2 from the electrical grid means stopping it from occurring in the first place. 

“This means more than simply switching off fossil fuels in favor of renewable energy, such as solar power and geothermal energy,” Terrapass notes. “It involves increasing energy efficiency and looking for clean energy resources that are not typical renewables.”

Electrification: All or Nothing

Electrification technologies—those that promote the all-electric status of homes, transportation, and businesses—are rapidly becoming more cost-effective and more reliable than fossil fuel systems in a variety of planning scenarios and climatic conditions, according to COGNITION data.

For example, the electrification of homes is expected to increase substantially in the next decade, with market growth from $2.4 billion in 2020 to $12.9 billion in 2029 for electrified home technologies. These include air-source heat pumps, heat pump water heaters, and induction cooking products. 

Use of these technologies will “improve cost and performance metrics across climate zones and markets, and lead to high job creation associated with new construction and retrofit projects,” COGNITION notes.

Electrification is not a new concept: More than 37 percent of all homes nationwide are all-electric, most in the South, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Jurisdictions across the country are requiring new homes and commercial buildings to be all-electric. 

More than 50 cities in California thus far have taken this route since 2019. This includes San Jose and San Francisco, the nation’s 10th and 17th most-populated cities, according to the Sierra Club. Cities in other states, including Massachusetts, Oregon, Texas, New Mexico, Washington, and Louisiana have plans under consideration or taking effect in 2022.

“We can’t ignore that we are seeing the consequences of the climate crisis every day,” San Francisco Supervisor Catherine Stefani noted in a report in the San Francisco Examiner. “Whether it is the impact of sea-level rise on our sea wall or the wildfires that are devastating communities locally and around the globe, we will be paying for the consequences of climate decisions for a very long time.”


The Last Defense: Carbon Tech

Decarbonization has two green processes. The first is Earth’s forests and oceans, which regularly filter pollution from the atmosphere. For thousands of years, this method was sufficient to keep things in check. But over the past 50 years, increasing emission levels and destruction of natural purifiers such as rainforests and algae have caused carbon levels to rise by 90 percent, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 

That brings the other cleaning effort into play: technology. A slew of tech products and processes are on hand to help slow the rate of emissions and speed up how fast we dispose of them. They include:

Direct-air capture. In this process, an industrial plant uses massive fans to pull in air and sends it through a liquid or solid filter to remove the CO2. The carbon is eventually injected deep into the ground, where additional natural processes turn it into solid rock within a couple of years. Swiss clean air technology manufacturer Climeworks recently went online in Iceland with Orca, the world’s largest direct air capture plant. It’s capable of drawing down 4,000 tons of CO2 annually—about the amount that 790 passenger vehicles pump out in a year.

Carbon utilization. This process of taking carbon particles out of the air and infusing them into products is necessary for highly intensive industries like concrete, asphalt, and steel. One method, mineralization, transforms CO2 into mineral carbonates, which can be used to make concrete and cement. 

Because these building construction materials are used at an enormous scale and have product lifetimes that span decades, mineralization “represents a significant opportunity for long-term carbon storage as well as utilization,” according to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. A variety of processes that use carbon dioxide in the production of concrete and cement are already operating at limited commercial scales.

Other technologies use chemical and biological processes to transform CO2 and methane into fuels, polymers, and chemicals. Some of these processes are already producing high-value chemicals, National Academies notes.

But being able to use technology to reduce GHGs is only part of its environmental benefit. The process also assigns a value to CO2 and changes the way people think of the gas, according to COGNITION. 

Government incentives. More than $20 million has already been allocated to companies that have sequestered or reused carbon in products. Another $6 billion has been earmarked for companies developing carbon capture, storage, and utilization technologies.

Congress is also considering the Storing CO2 and Lowering Emissions Act (SCALE) Act, a $5 billion plan calling for an infrastructure to transport carbon dioxide from the sites of capture to locations where it can be utilized in manufacturing or sequestered safely and securely underground. 

Related Stories In This Series:

The State of Sustainable Building 2022 

Alternative Building Systems Rising

People Develop New Priorities for Living Spaces

Accelerating Decarbonization

It’s been documented through numerous studies, conferences, white papers, and even fundraisers that the world has until roughly 2050 to change its global greenhouse gas emission habits or begin to see permanent environmental damage. 

The United States is currently part of the Paris Agreement, which calls for voluntary sustainability efforts by participating nations to help them reach carbon neutral status and keep global warming to less than 1.5 degrees Celsius within 30 years from now.

According to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, there are five main technology-driven goals that the United States must meet by 2030 to eventually hold up its end of the Agreement 20 years later:

Produce Carbon-Free Clectricity 

The nation needs to double the share of electricity generated by non-carbon-emitting sources to at least 75 percent by 2030. This will require record-setting deployment of solar and wind technologies, scaling back coal and some gas-fired power plants, and preserving operating nuclear plants and hydroelectric facilities where possible.

Invest in Energy-Efficiency and Productivity

By 2030, total energy use by new buildings should be reduced by 50 percent. In existing buildings, energy used for space conditioning and plug-in devices should be lowered every year to achieve a 30 percent reduction by 2030. Goals for industrial energy productivity (dollars of economic output per energy consumed) should increase each year.

Plan, Permit, and Build Critical Infrastructure 

By 2030, the nation should increase overall electrical transmission capacity by approximately 40 percent in order to better distribute high-quality and low-cost wind and solar power from where it is generated to where it can be used across the country. The nation should also accelerate the build-out of the electric vehicle recharging network and initiate a national CO2 capture, transport, and disposal network to ensure that CO2 can be removed from point sources across the country.

Electrify Energy Services in Transportation, Buildings, and Industry

By 2030, the nation should aim for 50 percent of new vehicle sales across all classes to be zero-emission vehicles. The United States should replace 20 percent or more of fossil fuel furnaces with electric heat pumps in buildings and initiate policies so that new construction is all electric except in the coldest climate zones. Where industrial processes cannot be fully electrified, they should begin the transition to low-carbon heat sources.

Expand the Innovation Toolkit 

The nation should triple federal investment in clean energy research, development, and demonstration (RD&D) to provide new technology options, reduce costs for existing options, and better understand how to manage a socially just energy transition.


Where Fresh Air Isn’t

One of the biggest sources of carbon emissions comes from inside U.S. (and world) households. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA):

  • Approximately 70 million American homes burn natural gas, oil, or propane on site to heat interior space and water.  
  • This generates 560 million tons of CO2 each year—one-tenth of total U.S. emissions and just under half of all residential end-use energy consumption nationally. 
  • Gas stoves also emit pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide and carbon monoxide into the home, resulting in asthma and other ailments. Everyday indoor activities, such as cooking meals, can enable those invisible pollutants to easily reach levels that would be illegal outdoors.