On October 30, world leaders will gather at Glasgow, Scotland for the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26). The summit that was postponed last year due to COVID-19, a year that also saw some of the deadliest impacts of Climate Change yet, is expected to accelerate action towards the goals of the Paris Agreement and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Or at least that is what the world is hoping for.
The science is clear, and emphatic, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in October 2018 concluded that the world needs to halve greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions over the next decade, and reach net-zero carbon emissions by the middle of the century if we are to limit global temperature rises to 1.5 degrees Celsius, and avert a full-blown climate crisis.
As part of the Paris Agreement, every country agreed to communicate or update their emissions reduction targets — their Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) — every five years to reflect their highest possible ambition, and a progression over time.
These targets set out how far countries plan to reduce emissions across their entire economy and/or in specific sectors. Last year, 2020, marked the end of the first five-year cycle. At Glasgow, countries are being asked to come forward with ambitious 2030 emissions reductions targets that align with reaching net-zero by the middle of the century.
Already more than 130 countries have set or are considering a target of reducing emissions to net-zero by mid-century. Businesses and investors have followed suit, with over 2,100 of the world's largest corporations having set net-zero goals under the UN-backed ‘Race to Zero’ campaign, while asset managers have pledged to deliver net-zero emission portfolios by mid-century at the latest.
Some of India’s largest firms have announced net-zero goals. Mukesh Ambani’s oil-to-telecom conglomerate Reliance Industries Ltd said it will turn ‘net carbon zero’ by 2035. Private lender HDFC Bank Ltd has set 2031-32 target for being carbon neutral, while Tata Consultancy Services Ltd seeks to be there by 2030. Wipro Ltd, Infosys Ltd, Mahindra & Mahindra Ltd, JSW Energy Ltd, and even the Indian Railways have also announced similar plans.
Net-zero is not zero?
Even as the pressure for countries, and corporations, to commit to more ambitious net-zero targets builds up, there has been fierce criticism about the whole concept of the net-zero pledges. Critics point out that any commitment to net-zero emissions by 2050 are fraudulent if they allow expansion of coal, oil and gas, and do not include drastic, and immediate, cuts in current fossil fuel use.
In essence net-zero means achieving a balance between the greenhouse gases put into the atmosphere, and those taken out. The first is to stop releasing GHGs, by cutting emissions; and, second is to remove carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere using ‘negative emissions technologies’ (NETs). For example a country or company cuts most of its emissions through efficiency, and clean energy, then offsets the rest by removing CO2 from the atmosphere or eliminating emissions elsewhere using NETs.
But the main problem is that most NETs are still only prospective technologies — they do not exist as large-scale socio-technical systems ready for deployment.
Moreover, there is scepticism around how countries track, and report, their emissions in the absence of a Paris Rule Book to ensure transparency, and accountability. Currently emissions are tracked on a ‘territorial’ basis, meaning that net-zero targets are only concerned with emissions produced within a particular jurisdiction or territory, which leaves out all emissions arising from the products, and services, consumed in the territory but produced elsewhere. This also paves the way for cross-border carbon leakage, through which countries can simply relocate their polluting activities to other jurisdictions without having to take ownership for the resulting emissions.
It is obvious that net-zero pledges that use offsets simply cannot replace needed emissions reductions, and fossil fuel phase-outs. Also, nature-based offsetting that relies heavily on land use in the global south risks shifting responsibility for emissions made by wealthier nations to those already struggling with the impacts of the climate crisis.
Three of Europe's leading environmental scientists, University of Exeter's James Dyke, University of East Anglia's Robert Watson, and University of Lund's Wolfgang Knorr condemned the "fantasy of net zero", and concluded "current net zero policies will not keep warming to within 1.5C because they were never intended to". They allege that net-zero targets "were and still are driven by a need to protect business as usual, not the climate".
Central to the race to net-zero debate is the question of equity. Under pressure to announce net-zero targets, India’s Environment Minister Bhupendra Yadav on August 8, said: “Developed countries have usurped far more than their fair share of the global carbon budget. Reaching net-zero alone is not enough, as it is the cumulative emissions up to net-zero that determine the temperature that is reached. India’s cumulative and per capita current emissions are significantly low and far less than its fair share of global carbon budget.”
The principle that rich nations should lead on Climate Change is enshrined in the UN climate convention that dates back to 1992, and was reconfirmed in the Paris Agreement. Therefore, if the science says ‘global net-zero by mid-century’, there is a strong moral case for developed countries adopting an earlier date based on their historical emissions, instead of expecting developing countries (such as India) to make deep carbon-cuts in the same time frame as it is still developing, and fighting poverty while having to rely on an energy-mix that largely relies on fossil fuels.
Unfortunately, there are no alternatives on the COP26 table right now. For all the valid criticism against it, net-zero is the only game in town that many believe can at least start the process of decarbnonisation, not on the scale required, but a start.
Also, no, it was not fossil fuel industries that lobbied for net-zero in the Paris Agreement, but Farhana Yamin, a British-Pakistani climate advocate. Taking inspiration from the success of Montreal Protocol, the treaty to phase out ozone-depleting CFCs, she settled for the simplicity, and universality of zero emissions, “Once people get their heads round this scary idea, they enjoy having this constraint and something to work towards,” Yamin said in 2019.
So what will make net-zero work?
To begin with, net-zero targets should cover all sectors, all GHGs, and all sources of emissions. These targets should in turn be made legally binding to ensure governments are held accountable, and also to ensure industry compliance.
The Paris rulebook should ensure ways of avoiding dodgy emissions accounting. One emissions accounting approach is ownership-based, recommended by researchers studying Chinese overseas coal finance, the principle behind such an approach is that emissions arising from all goods and services owned by a country should count towards its national emissions balance, irrespective of where these are located.
Most importantly, net-zero by 2050 target should have an immediate impact, with measurable, and verifiable, reduction in emissions right now, and not in the distant future. To quote climate activist Greta Thunberg, "Yes we need to balance out some emissions that can't be eliminated (agriculture, etc.)," she argued in April. "But as it is now I dare to claim that these distant net-zero targets aren't about that, rather they're about communication tactics and making it seem like we're acting without having to change."