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Climate Change Tracker: Do net-zero emissions pledges actually work?

The current climate change mitigation buzzword is ‘net-zero’ emissions. But is it too vague and full of loopholes to work?

Can countries continue to burn fossil fuels and offset the emissions elsewhere?
Can countries continue to burn fossil fuels and offset the emissions elsewhere? (Istockphoto)

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If you follow the current state of global climate change decision-making, on phrase that you would have come across a lot is “net-zero”. From the UN Secretary General António Guterres to various governments, the narrative of net-zero emissions, a target set by individual countries to be achieved sometime around 2050, is clearly the dominant narrative in climate change mitigation discusses.

This column has gone into the concept of net zero at length before, but here’s the gist of it. The global effort is to achieve the goal of keeping global temperature rise to within 2 degrees Celsius (and preferably 1.5 degrees Celsius) above pre-industrial times by 2100. Since climate change is caused by human-made greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions like CO2, many industrialised nations have committed themselves to go to net-zero emissions by mid-century.

What this means is to reduce fresh GHG emissions to zero by any means possible, including a greater reliance on renewable energy (RE), elecrtrified transport systems, better energy efficiency and carbon capture and storage technologies. It also includes the use of carbon sinks and carbon offset measures designed to keep the net new emissions to zero.

Listen to the Mint Climate Change Tracker podcast hosted by Bibek Bhattacharya.

Policy experts say that this isn’t perfect, but it’s as good a solution as anything else right now. However, the narrative of emitting fresh GHG while offsetting it elsewhere can lead countries to make some strange choices. Take Norway, which has legally mandated an act to reach a scenario of 80-95% lower emissions by 2050 as compared to 1990 levels. It aims to reduce emissions by 40% by 2030. Yet, in December, the country’s Supreme Court green-lit the government’s efforts to continue to drill for oil in the Arctic. Add to this the case of England’s recent effort to justify a new coal mine (which it halted after pressure from the US) using the net-zero rhetoric. Clearly, ahead of the crucial COP26 international climate summit in Glasgow in November, much of this ambiguity needs to be removed. Especially when England, as the host of the summit, plans to call on the world’s governments to reach net zero by 2050.

In a 2015 report, the NGO ActionAid stated that net zero could “prove to be a trap that delays real climate action, and which could drive devastating land grabs and hunger through the large-scale use of land, biofuels and biomass to absorb rising carbon dioxide emissions”. This unease was echoed in an article in the journal Nature earlier this week by Joeri Rogelj and others. Rogelj is director of research at the Grantham Institute-Climate Change & the Environment at the Imperial College London. The article states that, “Critics could argue that vague targets are better than none. But the stakes are too high to take comfort in mere announcements. Everyone need not make the same choices. But without more clarity, strategies behind net-zero targets cannot be understood; nor can their impact be evaluated.”

It also warns that with vague parameters, any individual achievement would be too weak to deliver on the collective goal of the Paris Climate Agreement. It then proceeds to offer a 10-point guideline on how countries, companies and others can set high quality net-zero targets based on fairness.

Speaking to this writer in December on the occasion of the fifth anniversary of the Paris Agreement, climate change scholar and policy expert Navroz K. Dubash had aired similar misgivings. For the industrialised countries, the language of net zero seems to be very big. But I would welcome them telling us what that translates to in the next 10 years and how are you going to get there?” He said that while we talk about an ambition gap regarding emissions reductions, we also need to address the “implementation gap”.

2021 needs to be an important year to get these answers in as clear a way as possible. It’s only then can we even begin to implement some real action beyond the cosy soundbites of net-zero pledges. As ever, time is not on our side.

Follow the column with #MintClimateTracker. Click on this link to listen to the Mint Climate Change Tracker podcast hosted by Bibek Bhattacharya.

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