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Research and innovation for climate neutrality in Europe by 2050: Challenges, opportunities, and the path forward

In close collaboration with the European Commission and a wide range of experts and practitioners, we identified high-risk and high-impact innovation areas for climate change mitigation and helped define future priorities to achieve climate neutrality in Europe by 2050. The results of our work will directly inform the Research & Innovation Framework Programme of the European Commission that will follow Horizon Europe, a program worth €95.5 billion.

RESULTS AT A GLANCE
17 solution landscapes
designed to map climate mitigation solutions and link these to specific challenges
150 individual solutions & 3 nexuses
clustering solutions against essential needs

Achieving climate neutrality requires extraordinary efforts, sector-wide transformation, and innovative thinking. Each sector must fundamentally rethink the way it operates to ensure it can reach net-zero without jeopardizing other environmental and societal objectives—both within the EU and globally. To complete this new report, ICF coordinated a team of experts from Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research, Perspectives Climate Group, Cleantech Group, and Cambridge Econometrics. Building on extensive research, climate neutrality scenarios analysis, foresight workshops, and stakeholder engagement, the report advocates moving beyond the paradigm of individual technologies by embracing a systemic approach focused on goal-oriented research and innovation (R&I) interventions, as well as considering how systemic interactions of climate mitigation approaches can be better integrated in the development of R&I programs.

Challenge

Despite a decade of progress in fostering a vibrant European ecosystem of cleantech innovators and investors, the path towards climate neutrality and the transition to a systemic approach in EU R&I is still long and requires fresh thinking. Still facing significant challenges, existing R&I programs are hindered by siloed mindsets and structural barriers that limit holistic thinking and cross-sector collaboration. Inadequate metrics and evaluation tools fail to capture systemic impacts, while risk-aversion in funding allocations favors incremental over radical innovations. Misalignment of stakeholder interests and a lack of transdisciplinary expertise further complicates efforts. Additionally, the rapid pace of global change often outstrips the ability of R&I programs to adapt effectively, necessitating a flexible, integrated approach that balances technological advancements with societal transformations to achieve climate neutrality by 2050.

Solution

Starting with the analysis of different climate neutrality pathways, we designed 17 solution landscapes to map more than 150 climate mitigation solutions against specific challenges. Building on foresight workshops and extensive stakeholder engagement, these solutions were then assessed based on a detailed evaluation framework. The results were then confronted with a needs-based approach aiming to link specific solutions and R&I areas to broader societal needs that must be met to transform our society and the global economy towards a truly sustainable model. This resulted in the design of three nexuses where technological and societal innovation is possible and required:

Mobility – Built environment – Energy nexus

End-of-life treatment and recycling

Prioritize recycling of materials from wind, PV technologies, and construction as they reach end-of-life and invest in innovative and effective recycling solutions.

Alternative building materials and construction methods

Emphasize green materials and modular construction methods for sustainable building practices. This includes promoting green steel, green cement, and nature-based materials.

Mobility and energy flexibility

Focus on reducing transport demand and enhancing energy flexibility through virtual power plants. IT solutions and mobility-on-demand are key to decarbonizing mobility, while supply and demand flexibility supports overall nexus transformation.

Circularity – Industry – Carbon removals and capture nexus

Circularity by design as transversal solution

Circularity must be addressed both from a technical and social perspective to allow emerging solutions to scale.

Foster synergies between industry decarbonization and carbon removal solutions

The search for innovative solutions to decarbonize hard-to-abate industrial sectors should go hand in hand with the search for innovative carbon removal and usages solutions.

New business models

Deeper technical integration of CO2 removal and capture technologies in industry will also need to be accompanied by new conceptions of business models in this sector.

Agrifood – Carbon removals nexus

Unlocking carbon removals in agriculture

Terrestrial removal technologies (e.g., biochar, afforestation /reforestation, soil carbon sequestration) can be integrated into existing agricultural systems for high mitigation potential. R&I should focus on durability, monitoring, adoption, and overcoming barriers among farmers and communities.

Blue carbon solutions—from mangroves to aquaculture

Blue carbon solutions (e.g., CO2 capture in mangroves, seagrass, and kelp farming) offer GHG mitigation and biodiversity benefits. R&I efforts are needed to scale up implementation, monitor carbon flows, and address regulatory challenges, especially for ocean-based removal methods.

Navigating complexity—marine systems and carbon removals

Ocean-based methods (e.g., artificial up/downwelling, ocean alkalinity enhancement) require careful examination due to marine system complexity. Transdisciplinary R&I, MRV systems, and socio-economic aspects play crucial roles in advancing carbon removals.

Rooted in concrete examples of climate mitigation solutions, this approach provided a structured framework and allowed us to:

  • Integrate a mix of enabling technologies, including materials and general-purpose technologies (GPTs), while considering key enabling conditions such as economic competitiveness, performance, and cultural norms.
  • Address the challenges and dependencies associated with each solution, emphasizing the need for a core narrative to align technologies with future needs.
  • Identify high-risk, high-impact solutions and link those to incremental progress while keeping the end goal in mind.
  • Adopt a multi-dimensional approach supporting both systemic interactions and targeted innovation.
  • Ultimately guide informed decision-making towards the 2050 climate neutrality objective.

Results

The main recommendation stemming from the report “Research and innovation for climate neutrality by 2050: Challenges, opportunities and the path forward” calls for the combination of a mission-driven approach with a human-need driven agenda and a tipping point framework in the design of R&I programs, to maximize impact and social benefits. This will allow stakeholders to:

  • Remain focused on the full set of human needs that must be addressed in a sustainable way, back casting from 2050 targets and considering various possible end points.
  • Move beyond techno-centric approaches and focus on the broader set of enabling conditions required to trigger feedback loops, create the right enabling conditions and eventually reach tipping points leading to systemic change.
  • Consider the broader set of R&I interventions required to address the different levers to achieve a tipping point, i.e., economic competitiveness and affordability, performance and attractiveness, accessibility, cultural norms and desirability, capability and information, and complementarity.
  • Focus on the full spectrum of barriers preventing the achievement of enabling conditions.
  • Provide greater directionality to R&I programs by focusing on interventions that are likely to have the highest impact (recognizing that many will also carry high-risk to the public sector funder) while remaining focused on benefits for citizens.

Recognizing the importance of this report for the future of the EU R&I agenda, the European Commission organized a High-Level Dialogue to discuss how R&I can best contribute to the climate neutrality goal. The Dialogue welcomed four distinguished speakers: European Commission’s Director General for DG Climate Action, Kurt Vandenberghe; Director General for Research & Innovation, Marc Lemaître; Vice President at Breakthrough Energy, Ann Mettler; and Chair of the Scientific Council of the Swedish Research Council for Sustainable Development and President of the Swedish Royal Academy of Engineering Sciences, Sylvia Schwaag Serger. A video of the event is available online.

“I would really like to commend the authors of this report. It’s a very good report, very inspiring, very rich. It represents a blueprint for the next Framework Programme… But it’s also a very interesting reference framework for climate policy in general for the years to come.”

Kurt Vandenberghe - Director
DG CLIMA - European Commission
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