Net Zero by 2050: This Generation’s Moonshot

Published: April 4, 2023

On September 12, 1962 United States President John F. Kennedy gave one of his most famous speeches at Rice University in Houston, Texas. It was his iconic “We choose to go to the moon” speech, where he ignited the space race and set in motion the original moonshot. At the time of the speech, there was not a clear pathway of how to get there; much of the required technology did not exist. The country was not united behind the goal, with some believing it a waste of resources and others questioning the ethics and safety of moving into space. By many measures, the United States was not in the lead in the race for space exploration. The first reaction of many, if not most, was likely to list all the reasons why JFKs goal was not possible. Yet, less than 7 years later, astronauts walked on the moon for the first time on July 20, 1969, a moment that united most of humanity in a way that only achieving a crazy, audacious goal can do.

“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade…not because it is easy, but because it is hard. Because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.”

John F. Kennedy, President of the United States        

It turns out that on September 12, 1962, JFK was giving a master class in how to solve a special class of problems, called “Wicked Problems”. The term Wicked Problem was first described in 1973 to describe the unique challenge of addressing difficult social policy issues. These are problems that are not just technically or financially complex to solve, but because of their impact on culture, people, and society are hard to even fully define in the first place, let alone find a solution to. Poverty, health care, education, homelessness, and sustainability are all examples of wicked problems. A few characteristics of wicked problems include:

  • They do not have a clear problem definition. Depending on your perspective, the problem looks different.
  • They do not have a “stopping rule”. It is inherently difficult to know when the problem is solved.
  • Solutions are not right or wrong, only better or worse. Every solution is relative.
  • It is nearly impossible to test the outcome of a solution. You must trial it in the real world.
  • The problem is responsive to your actions. The fact you are trying to solve the problem actually changes the problem.

Climate change is a classic wicked problem. Despite growing scientific evidence for decades and early thought leaders passionately saying we need to act now (as far back as the 1970s and 1980s) it has been a problem steeped in debate, in domestic policy, in geopolitics, in cultural norms, and so many other social and scientific complexities. It was the classic tractionless problem, hotly debated at dinner tables with family and friends, but years and decades would pass with little change in the debate. Sides were clearly entrenched in their chosen viewpoint.

Then, on December 12, 2015, world leaders gathered in Paris at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21…yes, this was the 21st version of such a meeting) and entered into a historic international treaty called the Paris Agreement signed by 195 countries and the European Union. Like any piece of legislation, it is steeped in complexity and legislative jargon that would be debated for years, but within it exists something else. Four words that now nearly 8 years later have proven to be the “We chose to go to the moon” moment for climate change: Net Zero by 2050.

Net Zero by 2050

Those four words take a classic wicked problem with all its hairy, unmanageable complexity and instantly tame it. But how?

A Goal. The decades of science, modeling, debate, and strategy boiled down to a single goal. The planet needs to achieve net zero emissions, meaning all emissions that we cannot get rid of must be offset so the total emissions of the planet net to zero. Suddenly, we have a clear problem definition.

A Timeline. All this must be done by 2050. No caveats, no qualifiers. Achievability is anything but certain, but a stake is now in the ground to define when success needs to happen.

A Way to Participate. Now every country, state, city, company, organization, and individual has a clear message on how to be part of the solution. Regardless of your sphere of influence, your goal is achieve Net Zero in what you control. Doing so by 2050 will make a difference, while achieving it sooner than 2050 will have an even greater impact.  If you can go beyond Net Zero and participate in carbon eliminating activities (“carbon negative”), then you will make the most significant contribution. The challenge has now been taken out of the realm of PhD scientists and has become accessible to everyone.

A Vision. There is no mention of how to get there. No mention of what technologies we need to use. No discussion of fossil fuels vs renewables vs nuclear. It is the ultimate creativity enabler. A clearly defined end point and a wide-open pathway for any and all technologies that can get us there. Net Zero by 2050 invites ALL to participate and equally creates a vision of collaboration.

Net Zero by 2050 is about creating a movement – and the beauty of successful movements is their exponential growth. While the first years of this movement have looked linear, small steps of progress are building momentum. Investors and boards are now demanding that companies disclose their plans to reach Net Zero. We have seen about two-thirds of the Fortune 500 commit to Net Zero goals by 2050 or sooner, seeing it as both their duty and an incredible business opportunity. The US has passed the Inflation Reduction Act and countries around the world are following suit to increase capital commitments into climate focused investments. Technological innovations in areas like hydrogen, carbon capture, batteries, wind, solar, and more are advancing faster than ever before. Although slow to form, global reporting standards are falling into place to bring transparency to how emissions are reported and compared and eliminating greenwashing. The building blocks are being stacked to enable this movement to grow exponentially.

The planet just received a grade on their efforts towards Net Zero by 2050. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (UN IPCC) in March released its summary report on our progress to date. The results are not good. The message is that we are behind…way behind. In some circles, the findings are being used to support a thesis that the Paris Agreements and their vision of Net Zero by 2050 have failed. I think just the opposite.

Yes, we are behind, but we now have a target in Net Zero by 2050 that is being accepted broadly across the planet, by governments, companies, organizations, and individuals. Its still a crazy, audacious goal and we don’t fully know how to get there, but the fact that we now have a point of measurement to judge progress is incredibly important. It moves climate change out of the realm of an unsolvable wicked problem and into the realm of a crazy hard, complex, solvable moonshot…and there is a real difference.

The movement behind Net Zero by 2050 is traveling up the exponential curve. Some of the biggest companies in the world are getting aggressive. Google…Net Zero by 2030. Stellantis…Net Zero by 2038.  Amazon…Net Zero by 2040. ENGIE…Net Zero by 2045. Many of the largest Oil and Gas companies…Net Zero by 2050. One of the leading Oil and Gas conferences in the world, CERA Week, is now almost entirely dedicated to energy transition. The leading automotive conferences…dominated by electrification. The leading aerospace conferences…dominated by discussions on how to achieve net zero.

Net Zero by 2050 is this generation’s “we chose to go the moon” moonshot and it’s exciting to see so much talent, so much capital, so much human energy going into building a more sustainable society and economy. Unlike the race to the moon, we have 200+ countries across the planet to bring onboard and massive impacts on the global economy, so let’s expect some bumps along the way.

At Lyten, we are not striving to achieve Net Zero. We are striving to be Carbon Negative. Our contribution will be to deliver entirely new materials to the cause. We strive to create carbon negative supermaterials called Lyten 3D Graphene™ that can be used to help many of the hardest to abate sectors on the planet achieve net zero, i.e., automotive, aviation, energy, plastics, building materials, etc.  We have investors, partners, and customers that don’t just see our mission to be a decarbonization force  as “nice to have,” but as a “must have” on our collective fight to net zero.  Net Zero by 2050 is a movement and movements only happen with cooperation and collaboration. We are humbled to have the opportunity to be collaborating with global thought leaders from the private and public sector to help make a difference to one of the most daunting challenges mankind has ever faced.