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September 28, 2021

Global Economy|Climate Change

Net Zero is not Enough

By Nitin Desai





Global climate agreement must be about the allocation of available carbon space The recent report issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has raised a red alert and led quite correctly to demands for more effective actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate the risk of a rapid global temperature rise.

The developed nations have answered this with a net-zero carbon emission commitment for 2050 and China has responded with a similar commitment for 2060. India is now under pressure to announce its net-zero commitment.

This catchy slogan of net-zero must be seen in the context of the statement in the most recent IPCC report “that reaching net zero anthropogenic CO2 emissions is a requirement to stabilize human-induced global temperature increase at any level, but that limiting global temperature increase to a specific level would imply limiting cumulative CO2 emissions to within a carbon budget” What this says is that if we have a specific temperature goal, getting to net-zero by some target date is not sufficient.

The cumulative emissions upto that point also have to be consistent with the temperature rise target. Is this the case with the announcements that have been made so far? Assuming that, as promised, there is a steady decline in emissions in USA, EU, UK and Japan from 2018 to net-zero by 2050 and in China from 2030 to 2060, the cumulative emissions of these net-zero committed countries will be 485 Gigatonnes of CO2 (GtCO2).

According to the IPCC report cited above, the carbon budget available for a 50 percent chance of staying at or below a 1.50C temperature rise is 500 GtCO2 and for a 67 percent chance is 400 GtCO2. Hence the net-zero commitment by the big emitters will use up the entire carbon budget available for the 1.50C target and leave no room for any other country. Moreover, there is no recognition of the culpability for past emissions from 1850 to 2019 which have used up 2390 GtCO2 of carbon space. Nor is this all.

The goal set is decades into the future and making it legally binding is of no value. There are hardly any intermediate commitments leading to that distant goal for which these major emitters can be held accountable except the recent announcements of reductions in carbon emissions by 2030. These reductions have been taken into account in the cumulative emission estimate of 485 GtCO2 given above. A further point needs to be made about the commitments made by USA, EU, UK and Japan.

They are for the carbon emissions from the production on their territories not from the emissions attributable to their consumption. A detailed calculation of consumption-based greenhouse gas emissions is not readily available but there are research studies that show that since 1991 while the territorial emissions of carbon in developed countries diminished, the impact of rising consumption, satisfied through imported carbon intensive goods, has increased.

A country achieving a net-zero target by off-loading its carbon-intensive demands onto other countries will not help in achieving our climate goals. Climate action must include a commitment to contain the carbon footprint of upper income consumers in all countries as the top 10 percent of income earners contribute 48 percent of the global carbon emission. About half of these upper income polluters are in the high-income countries and most of the other half in middle-income countries. A third point about the net-zero slogan is necessary.

The commitment is not for zero carbon emission but for net zero carbon emission. This implies that there will be some activities that will continue to emit carbon and this will be compensated by measures to absorb carbon. It is essential that this netting of carbon emissions should not be through the purchase of carbon credits from countries not subject to emission commitments but through actual actions such as reforestation to absorb carbon.

Quite simply a trajectory to net-zero emission that is consistent with the 1.50C goal and that leaves room for others is far more important than the end date. The commitments announced by the big emitters do not do that.

Hence countries like India must argue vigorously for a global agreement on the sharing of available carbon space, as estimated by the IPCC, on the basis of sound principles of climate justice. Meeting the climate challenge involves more than just mitigation. In fact, we need to do look at three linked challenges— mitigation, adaptation, and resilience.

Even if the temperature increase is limited to what was agreed in Paris, we will still have significant changes in ecosystems that will require modifications in how we live and work. This requires a reexamination of virtually every area of development strategy and adapting it to manage expected changes in factors like temperature, water availability, and sea-level rise. But adaptation by itself may not be sufficient to cope with growing climate instability. The IPCC report has assessed that, relative to the once in ten-year incidence in the 1850-1950 period, we will see an increase to 4.1-5.6 times for extreme temperature, 1.5-1.7 times for extreme precipitation, and 2.0-2.4 times for droughts, even if we succeed in restricting the temperature rise to 1.5-2.00C. This does not include other extreme events linked to the impact on oceans that could lead to many more cyclones and typhoons.

Thus, we will see more episodes of cripplingly high temperatures like the ones experienced this year in Canada and Europe, more episodes of heavy one-day rains that caused unprecedented floods in several cities and more droughts than what we are used to now. That is why we need to prepare for resilience to cope with these stresses which we are already experiencing. Adaptation and resilience is particularly important if one looks at the challenges faced by people at the bottom of the pyramid of working and living conditions. They are usually not the ones responsible for creating the problem and given their low levels of consumption of energy, there is not much that they can do for mitigation.

What they most desperately need is action on adaptation and resilience long before the threats hit them. This is something that requires an effective local response and must become as central a part of our national climate change strategy as mitigation measures. A coherent program of mitigation, adaptation, and resilience is what India and every country in the world need. The global climate discussion must focus clearly on the allocation of available carbon space which will allow countries to work out such a strategy.

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