The Possible issue 08: Hard targets, harder choices

There is no shortage of promising solutions for reaching net-zero, but there are no easy answers either

January 2022

Words by Tom Smith

Net-zero gives us a hard target — and some harder choices.

This is not a crisis of innovation: there is no shortage of good ideas or promising solutions to reduce or even reverse our climate impact. What we don’t have is time, or the luxury of emitting carbon uncontrolledly as we build the infrastructure to create a net-zero world by 2050. 

Achieving this will be impossible without using steel and concrete, two materials that are together responsible for around 16% of manmade carbon emissions. We can decarbonize their production, up to a point, but not without significant quantities of key green resources — renewable electricity, for example — which are themselves carbon-intensive to develop and on which the decarbonization plans for many other industries also rely. In “The realist’s road to zero”, we explore the critical pinch-points and highlight the areas where action is most urgently needed.

Prioritizing access to resources — from city transport to materials to nature — is a recurring theme of this issue, as it will be in the decades to come. We know we need to plant more trees — for timber, for fuel, to sequester carbon — but we don’t have an infinite supply of fertile land and we also need to feed a growing population. And this forces us to confront other questions, such as what a sustainable urban food system looks like in the 21st century. 

There are no easy answers: apportioning resources almost always means taking from somewhere else. But by coming together as a society, being honest with ourselves about the challenges and always keeping an open mind, I hope we can begin to find our way forwards to a more sustainable, equitable, balanced world. 

Tom Smith is global director, property and buildings, at WSP

Download issue 08

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