Decarbonising the future

by Clare Taylor | 23/06/2022
Decarbonising the future

In the context of climate change, decarbonisation means reducing or eliminating greenhouse gas emissions. This article looks at three of the main sources directly affecting printing: the energy sector, transport, and heating and cooling buildings.

Fully embracing existing ways of reducing carbon can achieve the deep cuts needed by 2030.  It does, however, require strong policies and action by governments and changes to the systems of funding, subsidies and taxation. Emerging technologies in the pipeline can boost this as they come online.

We need to reach net zero by 2050 to avoid exceeding a 1.5°C increase. It is feasible, though very challenging. The International Energy Agency published a roadmap in October 2021 showing a pathway; it involves a complete transformation of how we use energy and has very little room for delay or missed targets. Importantly, it includes meeting energy demand in countries that currently have very little access, keeping energy affordable and planning for newly created jobs from clean energy to be located where jobs are lost from fossil-based industries: vital for a just transition.  

Energy efficiency is essential: the IEA see it as contributing to about a third of the emissions reduction needed, using “measures including electrification, behaviour change, digitalisation and material efficiency in industry.” A strong focus here would create jobs and reduce energy bills; it is already included in policy in many parts of the world. The circular economy and waste reduction also save energy.

The energy sector

The energy sector is responsible for around three-quarters of global emissions. Achieving net zero will involve both increasing the proportion of electricity from renewables and moving away from direct use of fossil fuels. Our energy consumption needs to be substantially electrified. According to McKinsey, in most markets 50 – 60% decarbonisation of the power system could be reached by 2040 with “little or no investment beyond that determined by purely rational economic behaviour.”

Solar and wind power have been competitive against fossil fuels for a few years, and are the cheapest, fastest way to build energy generating capacity. There is always discussion about nuclear power, but big cuts in fossil fuel use are needed by 2030, which means reliance on renewables to achieve them. Whatever side of the environmental argument one sits, building a nuclear power plant takes a long time –between 10 and 21 years from starting work to being operational.

Technological improvements needed are those for batteries and other forms of storage, such as pumped hydropower; for infrastructure, such as in supergrids to overcome intermittency; and in carbon capture and storage, including direct air capture.
What print businesses can do is to embrace resource and energy efficiency.


Transport contributes around 25% of global CO2 emissions. Of this, around 75% is road vehicles, so an important area to address.

The IEA energy roadmap includes an increase in electric vehicles from the current 5% globally to 60% by 2030. Even with the manufacturing impacts of both vehicles and batteries, EVs have substantially lower lifetime climate impacts than conventional vehicles. Cost, range and charging infrastructure have to be right, and vehicles ranging from light vans to heavy goods vehicles as well as passenger vehicles. EVs also create less air pollution, benefiting health for all.

Although electric passenger vehicles still cost more to purchase than equivalent conventional vehicles, the gap is closing and many countries offset the difference with subsidies and other incentives. Looking at the whole life cost – purchase price and total running costs - EVs become comparable after just a few years, being more economic to run. Market share is increasing rapidly, and car sharing schemes such as Zipcar moving towards electric fleets.

Range is growing, most now having more than sufficient for the average driver. But for long journeys, and those whose work requires substantial time on the road, charging infrastructure and time is a concern, as for the high proportions of the global population living where charging at home is not possible. Although home or workplace charging using the domestic grid is slow, with rapid charging points available range can be extended by a considerable amount in a short time – think lunch break or even coffee break. Networks of public charging points offering rapid charging are already expanding; recent commitments made by G7 members to invest significantly in the infrastructure should increase this - essential for transport electrification.

While there will always be a need for individual transport for some, we need to change from the current expectation of everyone having their own private vehicle (which usually spends over 80% of its time parked anyway) to better travel systems that work reliably and are affordable.

Electric vans are now widespread, but development in heavy duty zero emission vehicles such as buses and freight vehicles is slower, although electric and hydrogen buses and 27-tonne pure electric heavy goods vehicles are already in use. Trials have taken place for new systems, such dedicated motorway lanes for electric-powered goods with trolley bus-type overhead cables. Initiatives implemented for lighter loads include electric cargo bikes in inner cities and trialling drones for postal deliveries to islands around the coast of the UK.

What businesses can do is to rethink our approach to travel and transport.

Energy in buildings

Heating and cooling are complicated and take a large proportion of global energy in businesses and domestically. Better building insulation is essential, improving the quality of new buildings and retrofitting existing buildings.  Preventing overheating is more important as temperatures rise.

New and developing technologies for more efficient systems will play a large part. Heat pumps are very promising for both heating and cooling, but still expensive to buy and not suitable for all building types, particularly domestically, unless part of a district heating network. More networks are needed and better use of waste heat from underground railways, underground rivers and from industrial processes. Hydrogen can be used to replace grid gas as well as for transport, but to be part of a net zero pathway must be created with non-fossil-fuel electricity.  This whole area is still very fluid, with many trials underway as well as established systems.

What we can do – insulate!

Overall, we have the technology either already in use or under development to achieve what’s needed. The big question is do we have the collective will to do it?

by Clare Taylor Back to News

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