One of the key tenets of the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change mitigation was the goal to achieve net zero emissions by the second half of the century. This means that beyond 2050, global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions would decline to zero. The formulation was made so that governments and businesses would find it easier to decrease net emissions by balancing these with carbon offsets elsewhere in the world. Also known as carbon neutrality, this allowed the Paris Agreement to work in the notion of equity, where poorer countries were entitled to decarbonize over a longer time-frame than richer ones.
However, this has been criticized by some sustainability organizations like ActionAid. In its 2015 report, the NGO said net-zero might “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”.
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However, a target such as carbon neutrality is better than no emissions target at all. In fact, last year, the UN secretary general António Guterres wrote to world governments to formulate plans for carbon neutrality by 2050 to limit global heating to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by 2100. This has met with a variety of responses, with some countries, like China, pledging to achieve it, others, like Canada, stating this as a policy position, and yet others, like Denmark, writing carbon neutrality into law.
Net zero isn’t a perfect solution. Norway, for instance, has legally mandated carbon neutrality by 2050 on the back of international offsets, while continuing to drill for oil in the Arctic. But given the outright antagonism to climate change mitigation from high-emission major economies like the US and Brazil, net zero makes for at least a pragmatic goal. In fact, defying the intransigence of the US, American states like California aim to go carbon neutral by 2045.
Meanwhile, in June, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change’s (UNFCCC’s) Climate Ambition Alliance (CAA) launched the Race to Zero campaign. This encourages nations, companies and others to provide structured and implementable pledges for net zero carbon emissions by 2050 in time for its next conference of the parties (COP26) meet, delayed to November 2021 owing to covid-19. Currently, the CAA lists 120 countries, 452 cities, 22 regions, 1,101 businesses, 45 big investors and 549 universities as members. The race to free the world of GHG emissions remains a work in progress, however, with the UN trying to get world governments to sing from the same hymn sheet.
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