Report: How can research help the world hit net zero by 2050?

Explore emerging trends and opportunities to maximize the impact of clean-energy research in "Pathways to Net Zero" report

October 28, 2021
Elsevier editorial illlustration: Pathways to Net Zero

The drive to curb carbon emissions — and remove carbon from the atmosphere to the point where society is making a “net zero” contribution to CO2 levels — is essential to secure our future on this planet. A new report by Elsevier aims to advance the understanding of research and innovation in clean-energy and how it supports the drive toward a net zero future.

Net Zero reportPathways to Net Zero: The Impact of Clean Energy Research is based on a study analyzing more than 1.6 million papers from Elsevier’s Scopus database, combining data with content and subject-matter expertise to gain unique insights into how research can accelerate efforts to mitigate climate change. It’s designed to:

  • Provide descriptive insights into dimensions of research collaboration and knowledge transfer of particular relevance to net zero innovation ahead COP26.
  • Serve as an opening to discussions around net zero research and innovation.
  • Act as a springboard for debate on research funding and collaboration, technological choices and policy setting.

Download the report


Methodology

Capturing the research related to achieving net zero involved capturing a diverse set of publications in the Scopus database that are related to these two efforts. These publications focus on different methods and technologies for reducing emissions and removing carbon, as well as aspects of behavioral science and governance, among many other things.

As noted by Prof Leon Clarke, IPCC author and Advisory Group member for this report, “When we talk about net zero, the scope of what's relevant from a research perspective is enormous.” Further, there is no universal, agreed definition of net zero research. The breadth of the field required creating a complex search query that would capture all facets of the research.

With feedback from the report’s Advisory Group on the need to include carbon removal as well as curbing emissions, the team used two existing Scopus publication sets related to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These were SDG 7 – Affordable and Clean Energy and SDG 13 – Climate Action, with a filter on energy. The SDG 7 publication set captures the majority of research related to curbing emissions, but an important body of research related to carbon removal, particularly around carbon capture and storage, is captured within the SDG 13 set. . . We refer to this combined publication set as NØEnergy research.


Key findings

Publication trends

Between 2001 and 2020, the number of NØEnergy research publications grew rapidly, to a total of 1.6 million, and the field contributed to 4.9% of global publications in 2020, up from 1.2% in 2001. The field also grew faster than research at the world level: it had a compound annual growth rate of 13% between 2001 and 2020, whereas global output grew by over 5% over the same period.

Research topic trends

In Scopus, publications are gathered into topic clusters using direct citation analysis. A topic cluster is a collection of publications with a common intellectual interest.

Throughout the analysis period, the most published topic clusters related to lithium-ion batteries, power transmission and grids, solar energy and energy economics.

  • China’s largest topic cluster by number of publications was Lithium Alloys | Secondary Batteries | Electric BatteriesChina was also three times more specialized in this cluster than the global average.
  • The United States also published more of its NØEnergy research publications in Lithium Alloys | Secondary Batteries | Electric Batteries than in any other topic cluster. Among the top 20 topic clusters the US published in, it was only more specialized than the global average in Magnetoplasmal Plasmas | Tokamak Devices, which relates to fusion reactors.
  • Among India’s most published topic clusters, the most published was Electric Inverters | Electric Potential | DC-DC Converters, a topic cluster in which it was also highly specialized. India was most specialized in the topic cluster of Engine Cylinders | Biodiesel | Diesel Engines.
  • China published nearly 400,000 NØEnergy research publications between 2001 and 2020, the most of any country. It was followed by the United States (280,000+ publications), India, Germany and Japan. These five countries are also some of the highest producing nations for research publications in general.

Disciplinary diversity

NØEnergy research tends to be focused on a few disciplines, which could limit its ability to produce the societal outcomes needed to combat climate change.

  • The largest topic clusters in this field tend to be comparatively monodisciplinary or record an average level of disciplinary diversity.
  • Research related to climate action (SDG 13) is highly diverse, both conceptually and in terms of team composition, whereas publications on clean and affordable energy (SDG 7) are much more uniform in their disciplinarity.
  • The topic cluster displaying the most interdisciplinarity is Air pollution | Particulate matter | Air pollutants.
  • The most collaboratively diverse topic clusters are associated with clean energies, carbon capture or topics that intersect with other environmental concerns.
  • The topic clusters that score most highly for conceptual diversity are those associated with the development and design of consumer products: Models | Applications | Ubiquitous Computing, Authentication | Cryptography | Data Privacy and Intelligent Buildings | Internet | Bluetooth.

International collaboration

Collaboration between research actors is particularly essential in solving societal grand challenges such as climate change. International collaboration has been repeatedly shown to lead to more impactful research.

  • Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Switzerland and France had the highest shares of international collaboration during 2011-2020. These countries also increased their shares of international collaboration notably from 2001–2010 to 2011–2020.
  • The international collaboration share of NØEnergy research publications increased from 31% in 2011 to 45% in 2020.
  • The topic cluster with the largest share of international collaboration was Magnetoplasma | Plasmas | Tokamak Devices, which relates to the development of fusion reactors.

Global South participation in NØEnergy research

Only a small proportion of NØEnergy research is conducted in and for the Global South. This may be problematic for realizing potential development outcomes from the field.

  • Researchers from Global South countries accounted for a fifth of publication authors in the field. Even smaller proportions of the research include a fieldwork component in Global South locations, limiting opportunities for related development work.
  • The share of international collaborations with at least one author from the Global South increased from 3% to 9% between 2001 and 2020, a positive yet modest improvement.
  • Saudi Arabia had the highest share of publications including a Global South-based co-author (38%). The next largest share on this dimension was held by France at 19%.
  • The two countries with the largest publication outputs in NØEnergy research had notably low shares of collaboration with Global South authors: China’s share was 2% and the United States’ share was 6%.
  • Global South-based research tends to be taken up less by colleagues in other scientific communities.

Research levels

In the report, we categorize research into four levels: basic research, applied research, engineering–technological mix, and applied technology. Each topic cluster contains a mix of these research levels, and the balance of this mix provides insight into the maturity level of the topic cluster.

The largest topic clusters within NØEnergy research are mainly applied technology dominant, indicating a certain amount of maturity in these clusters. The basic and applied research levels are more dominant in topic clusters related to batteries, photocatalysts, organic light emitting diodes and fuel cells, indicating that these topic clusters are still evolving.

  • Globally, the share of basic research in NØEnergy research remained stable at 8%–9% over the 2001–2020 period, whereas the share of applied technology increased by more than 20 percentage points.
  • For the 2011–2020 period, Singapore had the highest share of basic research, followed by Switzerland, Russia and Japan. South Korea and Japan had notably higher shares of applied research than other countries. Denmark, Iran and Malaysia had the highest shares of applied technology (66% each).

Academic-corporate collaboration

Academic–corporate collaboration on NØEnergy research was more prevalent in European countries, the United States, Canada, Japan and South Korea.

  • Switzerland had the largest share of academic–corporate collaboration on NØEnergy research publications among the most published countries, and the Netherlands had the second largest share. For both countries, this collaboration occurred most often in the topic cluster of Electric Inverters | Electric Potential | DC-DC Converters.
  • Among the largest topic clusters, Magnetoplasma | Plasmas | Tokamak Devices (related to fusion reactors) and Wind Power | Electric Power Transmission Networks | Electric Power Distribution had the highest shares of academic–corporate collaboration.

Corporates in NØEnergy

European corporates produce a large share of NØEnergy research publications, with Chinese companies starting to overtake them. But overall, shares of corporate publications in the field are declining, and few of the largest emitters produce any significant research output.

  • Between 2011 and 2020, the contribution of corporates to overall NØEnergy research output declined from 9% to 5%. This decline was not a global trend, however. Corporate output from the United States declined by 4% over the period, whereas the corporate output from China increased by 21%.
  • Japan and Switzerland had the largest shares of corporate sector output, although their growth rates were declining in this area.
  • The most published topic cluster for corporates was Wind Power | Electric Power Transmission Networks | Electric Power Distribution, mainly driven by the Chinese corporates.

From research to patents

The period 2001–2020 saw strong growth for patents citing NØEnergy research publications, with China, the United States, Japan and Germany being dominant players.

Not only have the numbers of patents citing N0Energy grown exponentially, the numbers of patent filings grew by similar ranges.

  • The largest shares of patents citing NØEnergy publications are found in the technology clusters Electronics, Electric Power and Semiconductors (43%), Chemistry (23%), Information Technologies (12%), Physics (8%), and Telecommunications (5%).
  • Among the top 10 inventor countries globally, China’s annual patent publications started to grow in 2008, driving the almost exponential global growth through to 2020.
  • By 2015, China was the country with the biggest patent portfolio in NØEnergy research, surpassing the United States in 2012 and Japan in 2014. By the end of 2020, almost half of the global active patents related to NØEnergy research were from China.
  • By the end of 2020, two-thirds of all NØEnergy patent families focused on GHG Emission Reduction.

Policy implications

NØEnergy research receives only slightly more attention from policymakers and online audiences than comparable research fields. Yet considering the urgency of addressing climate change through NØEnergy research, the field should be grabbing the attention of policymakers, online media and knowledge sources. However, some smaller topics do fair better.

  • NØEnergy publications in Climate Action (SDG 13) are much more likely to be taken up in policy documents than those in Clean and Affordable Energy (SDG7).
  • In policymaking, NØEnergy research has been repeatedly taken up by governmental agencies such as the European Commission, the US government, and the German Umwelt Bundesamt.
  • NØEnergy research has also informed the work of inter-organizational bodies and think tanks, including the World Bank, the Wuppertal Institut and the IPCC.
  • NØEnergy research conducted in collaboration with low-income countries (LICs) and US-based researchers is the most likely to result in policy-related or news uptake.
  • The highest proportion of uptake in policy-related reports was associated with the NØEnergy publications produced by Dutch researchers.

Conclusions and future outlook

While the indicators are positive for net zero research and the transition to a clean energy future, more targeted, coordinated research in key areas, together with more collaborative efforts between the Global North and South, as well as initiatives by and for the Global South, are required to ensure that all countries and regions have access to the expertise and technologies needed to build capabilities at the local level to tackle climate change and make progress towards net zero.


Data

The data set used in this report is available to subscribers of SciVal and for free to researchers via the ICSR Lab. (ICSR Lab access is contingent on approval, by the ICSR Advisory Board, of a submitted research proposal.)

To commission a customized derivative report, please submit a request via our Research Intelligence portal.


Events & related resources

Webinar: How NetZero Energy Research translates into real-world actions

How can research and innovation intelligence contribute to a more sustainable future?

In this webinar, learn more about the results of scientific research that is finding its way into future-oriented applied technologies, including information on:

  • The global research and innovation landscape of Net Zero Energy, including which regions and key technology areas are global drivers
  • How findings from scientific literature can be evaluated and used as early indicators for sustainable technology developments
  • Which results from R&D are reflected in pioneering applied technologies and used to drive sustainable developments
  • How the mapping of big data from scientific literature and patents to the SDGs enable advanced analysis of research and innovation in other areas of sustainable decision-making

December 9 

2pm CET / 8am EST

2pm EST / 11am PST

Sign up here

Report panel at THE Climate Impact Forum

Launch of the 2021 report of The Lancet Countdown: Tracking Progress on Health and Climate Change

Lancet countdown launch information

Climate change is undermining progress made in reducing inequalities – from access to healthcare, to vulnerability to extreme weather. More frequent and intensifying heatwaves and extreme weather events like floods and drought are altering the spread of infectious diseases and exacerbating poverty and mental ill-health, disproportionately affecting those that contribute the least to global emissions. An urgent response to climate change and meaningful commitments and policy change at COP26 to reduce emissions will bring huge benefits for human health, with cleaner air, healthier diets, and more livable cities for everyone.

The Lancet Countdown: Tracking Progress on Health and Climate Change exists to monitor this transition from threat to opportunity. We are a collaboration of over 90 leading experts from academic institutions and UN agencies across the globe, bringing together climate scientists, engineers, energy specialists, economists, political scientists, public health professionals and doctors.

Books and journals collection for COP 26

COP26 logoDuring the COP 26 UN Climate Change Conference Oct 28 to Nov 22, Elsevier is offering a free-access special issue with over 130 book chapters and journal articles dedicated to advancing research and science on the climate crisis.

View and download from RELX SDG Resource Centre

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Elsevier collection for the COP26 virtual book showcase

Elsevier is joining 38 international publishers in a free virtual book showcase in support of the ongoing COP 26 conference in Glasgow oct 28 to Nov 22. Each publisher has contributed four titles about climate change and sustainability.


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