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New research from the University of East Anglia (UEA) highlights the sectors that countries believe will be the most challenging to decarbonize as they work towards achieving net zero emissions. These “hard-to-decarbonize” sectors include aviation, agriculture, and industry, which have fewer alternative options to fossil fuels. Residual emissions from these sources continue to be emitted at the point of reaching net zero, but their effects can be mitigated through carbon dioxide removal methods or international offsets. Agriculture, particularly emissions from livestock, is expected to be the largest contributor to residual emissions, accounting for an average of 36% of total emissions in developed countries.

The researchers analyzed national climate strategies from 71 countries to understand how they plan to address residual emissions. Only 26 of the countries quantified their residual emissions, with most aiming to achieve net zero by 2050. The study found that many countries view residual emissions as inevitable and have limited ambition in addressing them. This lack of focus on residual emissions could lead to countries continuing to rely on fossil fuels and hamper global climate goals. The study emphasizes the importance of further policy efforts, innovation, and exploring alternative solutions to reduce residual emissions.

Lead author Harry Smith pointed out that current net zero targets may not be ambitious enough in dealing with residual emissions. Some countries, like the UK and Spain, have ambitious scenarios that aim to reduce emissions by over 90% before cancelling out the remainder with carbon dioxide removal. However, other countries, such as Canada, have less ambitious scenarios that retain higher levels of fossil fuel use and production. The study highlights the need for countries to set more ambitious emission reduction targets and not rely solely on carbon dioxide removal methods.

For developed countries, residual emissions on average account for 21% of total emissions when compared to levels when emissions began to decline. Agriculture, in addition to being the largest contributor to residual emissions, also shows the least progress towards decarbonization, with an average reduction of only 37% for the studied countries. On the other hand, industrial emissions from manufacturing show a greater reduction of 70% on average. The study suggests that more transparency is needed in reporting emission reductions and that a better understanding is required of which emissions are truly difficult to decarbonize.

Dr. Naomi Vaughan, a co-author of the study, emphasizes the need for stronger reporting requirements to improve transparency around emissions reduction efforts. Some countries may be using carbon removal methods to mask weaker emission reduction ambitions, and greater scrutiny is needed to differentiate between truly hard-to-decarbonize emissions and those that could be addressed through changes in demand and investment in innovation. The study calls for a more comprehensive approach to addressing residual emissions and highlights the importance of exploring various solutions, such as dietary changes, reducing flying, and promoting the circular economy, in addition to investing in research and innovation.

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