Net zero emissions by 2050—a new approach needed

June 05, 2021 12:12 PM

Having a future-rational, equitable and balanced carbon budget is the key to climate stability and points to the nature of actions required by historically high emitters and those above the per capita global average

carbon emmission, net zero emmisions, climate changeThe concept of net zero itself is embedded with ambiguities and contradictions, and its implications are not only inequitable but also dangerous for the climate itself.

By Deepak Gupta

The IPCC Report of October 2018 called for limiting rise of temperature at the end of the century to 1.5oC. This was incorporated in the Paris Agreement, which asked for efforts to restrict temperature growth to ‘well below’ 2oC. It was noted that this required a balance between sources and sinks of emissions by mid-century, which has now led to the concept of net zero emissions by 2050.

This new idea has suddenly become the centrepiece of discussions, potentially diverting from the real problems and actions required, such as the urgency of accelerated reduction of emissions by developed countries, and now China, too; stock-taking of actions committed by the developed countries over the years, and since the Paris Agreement, and farming out an equitable carbon budget for the next three decades to give required space to developing countries since their emissions will necessarily increase. Climate action, ambition and leadership are all being increasingly both discussed and measured against this new global target.

The story of the climate-change negotiations has been one of almost complete and continuous failure of developed countries not only to not honour their commitments made at periodic conferences, but also to downgrade them at each of these while seeking more from developing countries. Their negotiating tactic has been simple. Promise reduction of their own emissions which will not be implemented as they are non-enforceable. Then, citing increasing threat of emissions already generated, ask developing countries to also reduce emissions. The basis of such a negotiating strategy is that as an emergency situation develops, people will simply forget the past and concentrate fully in dousing the fire to which everybody must contribute. Had they honoured their commitments of reducing emissions from the early years, the path for reduction would have been much less steeper and eminently doable. This is the real cost which the world is paying now and the burden is being put on the developing world. The current discussions essentially create a smokescreen for doing precisely that again at the COP26 to be held in Glasgow in November 2021 and this must be called out.

The concept of net zero itself is embedded with ambiguities and contradictions, and its implications are not only inequitable but also dangerous for the climate itself. First, fundamentally, it’s an aspirational idea, and one that does not actually reflect either the required ambition or urgency. No country has yet declared a pathway to their own individual net zero target or a time table. In every country there is confusion and divisiveness on this issue.

Second, it places completely misplaced hope on future technologies to somehow sequester carbon or absorb emissions through afforestation before mid-century. Virtually, all pathways laid out by the IPCC (to capture 12btCO2e every year) require huge deployment of the so-called negative emissions technologies (NET) after 2050. Till then, there is no magic bullet though the latest IEA Report on net zero proposes carbon capture of 4Gt by 2050. Although it has been suggested that planting trees ‘has mind blowing potential to tackle the climate crisis’, scientific studies have shown potential to remove, because of various constraints, lies between 40 and 100 G tons, which is too little, and that too over a long period of time. Therefore, neither is realistic and only shifts focus away from actions to be taken now to a distant future.

Third, this concept is even more inequitable than the entire climate conversation has been so far. It seeks to completely remove the responsibility of developed countries for their past emissions, and even continuing high level of current emissions, while removing any thought of rewarding those who have had very low emissions historically, which is cynical and hypocritical in the extreme. Further, it seeks to shift focus on all countries to reduce emissions in parallel. By combining the two above, it is even talking of very little impact of emissions of developed countries on the total picture and the need to restrict, and even decrease, emissions of developing countries. Two articles by Martin Wolf in the Financial Times in early May reflect this approach clearly. In one, he says that the UK contributes only 1.1% of the emissions, so, its reduction will hardly make any difference. In the other (May 5), he says the US (only) emits 15% of the total. He adds that, in 2020, high-income countries together emitted only 32% while China (30) and India (6) together emitted 36%. He goes on to add that on a ‘business as usual’ path, China would add 40% and India 15% of the increase in emissions between now and 2052, and other developing countries (minus Russia) 35%! He concludes that, in the long run, actions by these countries will be decisive in determining climate outcomes.

In Paris, then US president Barack Obama had commented upon the fact that there would be little impact in developed countries reducing their emissions as they will be made up by the increasing emissions of developing countries. In an interview (India Today, April 26), the Biden administration’s climate czar John Kerry, in a statement which misrepresents the actual situation, said: “India can contribute very significantly because, as a nation, it is the third-largest emitter—we are the second-largest, China the largest. So, we have a special responsibility. Between the three of us, we have over 50% of the world’s emissions. So, even though India’s emissions are smaller, by half than ours, we all have to do this because no one nation can solve the problem. Every nation has to be part of the solution.’

Fourth, the science clearly says that, by 2050, there should be net zero emissions globally. It does not imply that each country has to become net zero by that date, which this approach suggests. The policy implications of a global target would be that the bigger emitters historically have to become net zero much earlier than 2050 to balance out the increases of the smaller emitters in the future. This is accepted in the latest IEA report, too, though no dates are calculated. These ‘bigger’ emitters of the past, and even of today, we would necessarily have to see on the basis of per capita emissions or per capita energy consumption which establish their levels of development, both in the past and today, allowing smaller ones space to reach certain levels of development by 2050 or beyond, even if it is not equivalent. Sadly, this hope of equivalence has gone forever, but one can’t be denied basic levels of development. This would be the basic premise of climate justice.

Because of the dangers of this concept, the approach to the negotiations needs to change completely. In a recent article, three climate scientists (Dyke, Watson and Knorr) have clearly stated that restricting temperature to 1.5oC is not possible and net zero emissions by 2050 is a ‘dangerous trap’. In fact, they say: ‘We struggle to name any climate scientist that at that time thought the Paris Agreement was feasible or workable. Instead of confronting our doubts, we scientists decided to construct ever more elaborate fantasy worlds in which we would be safe.’

The conversation.com illustrates a study of the UK. IPCC 2018 calculated that a 66% chance of limiting climate warming to within 1.5oC above the pre-industrial average is 420 btCO2. Here, the UK has been given a proportionate budget of 2.9 bt. On the (unexplained) principle of equity, it has given, very generously but quite unfairly, poorer countries one-third higher than richer countries, thus giving the UK a budget of 2.5 bt. The UK carbon footprint 2018 was 590 mt (figures vary, so actual may be quite lower than this, but trends and outcomes won’t). This has been falling slowly by 1.5% annually. At this rate, the carbon budget would be exhausted in four years.

If a straight line is assumed to become net zero by 2050, the UK would generate an overdraft of approximately 3-4 times of the allowable budget. To remain within budget, the net zero date should be 2025. Ideally, the UK should reduce its emissions by 24% annually which would make emissions by 2030 only 22 mt. This means that the reduction in the first year itself would need to be 140 mt. The latest target set by the government is reduction to about 200 mt annually by 2035. This is the colossal scale of the task ahead for the developed countries. Will they be up to it? The 2050 target date ignores this dire situation. If we go by the latest commitments or reduction of emissions made by different developed countries, this carbon budget would certainly be exhausted by 2030 itself. This responsibility the developed countries want to avoid.

Therefore, we need to consider carving out a just division of filling the carbon space in the next three decades such that temperature increase remains as close to 1.5oC as possible. This would be a quite a complicated mathematical exercise, but very appropriate and worthwhile. It will also involve discussion on what should be a peaking year for different countries and the path of the reduction trajectory. The Paris Agreement, while urging global peaking as soon as possible, explicitly recognised that ‘peaking will take longer for developing countries’ and that this balance has to be achieved ‘on the basis of equity’ and in the context of ‘sustainable development and efforts to eradicate poverty’.

This mathematical exercise should be divided into three periods to get a clear picture. I am not doing the calculations, but the trends are very clear. First, a CEEW study shows that, in terms of GtCO2, the following have been the emissions between 1900 and 2010—the US 344, the EU 292, China 129, and India 31. Second, between 2010 and 2020, the emissions of the US and the EU have declined marginally while China has increased dramatically, while there would be a small increase from India. Third, in the coming decade, likely emissions as per present trajectory and commitments of the US and the EU will decline substantially in percentage terms, not in quantity terms, but China will increase significantly with India only contributing modestly. From 2030-2050, with a reducing trajectory line to net zero, the same trends will be highlighted, with China being still the major contributor. When we discuss actual quantities of emissions, China, the US and the EU will contribute much more, both in per capita terms as also in total emissions, than developing countries even till 2050. The first two show what has been the contribution of countries historically. The third shows that, even in the coming decade, these countries are the problem, not India, with China and the US emitting what India will perhaps do up to 2060 and 2045, respectively. So, Kerry’s statement quoted earlier is fundamentally wrong and completely misleading.

It is, therefore, clear that having a future-rational, equitable and balanced carbon budget is the key to climate stability and points to the nature of actions required by historically high emitters and those above the per capita global average, with China being treated as a special case.

It follows that the current and future emissions of many other developed countries as also those with very high per capita emissions should not be ignored. These may be relatively small compared to the total, especially because of the huge space now occupied by China, but together they constitute a substantial total which does make a huge difference. It would be worthwhile to note some of the high per capita emissions: Saudi Arabia (18.48), the US (16.56), Australia (16.92), Canada (15.32), Russia (11.74), Japan (9.13), Germany (9.12), China (7.05). India is a low 1.96. How can then the US, China and India be bracketed together, as done by Kerry as also the coverage in the Western media? In the last few years, in spite of growing disparity between India and China, the Western media, in particular, continues to bracket the two countries together. They must be dehyphenated immediately.

This brings us to the outlier, which is China, which we must consider a special case. China is today emitting more than the rest of the developing world combined (minus India) and has last year crossed the total of the OECD countries combined. It has tentatively declared a peaking year of 2030 and possible net zero date of 2060. This is simply unacceptable. China will singlehandedly completely prevent any chance of control of temperature below 2oC. It can no longer be treated as a developing country. In fact, a large portion of its emissions relate to economic domination of the world. Its undisguised attempts at major investments across the world, its territorial ambitions, its aggressive behaviour against most countries and its unabashed attempt to seize leadership in everything requires the world to come together to restrict its emissions, and sooner rather than later. China’s peaking must come by 2025 and its net zero should not be later than 2045. China neither lacks resources nor technical expertise to do so. In fact, it must get credit for a huge expansion of renewable energy and electric mobility and reduction in costs of solar manufacturing.

The report of The Climate Summit Momentum—issued by the Climate Action Tracker on May 21—states that all of NDC updates since September 2020 have narrowed the 2030 emissions gap by around 11-14% (2-6-3.9 Gt CO2). This has brought down rise in temperature estimates from all of the Paris Agreements pledges from 2.6oC to 2.4oC, although actual policies are currently leading to a rise of 2.7—3.1oC increase. Surprisingly, in spite of India being among the few countries on track to achieve its Paris pledges, it recommended that India should submit ‘much more ambitious targets’. Surprisingly, it does not say the same about China, by far the principal contributor and problem. And therein hangs a tale. Alok Sharma, the president of the Glasgow conference, in his visit to India earlier this year, had said that ‘powerful actions by India would encourage other countries to follow suit’. What actions are suggested? Why not talk of such ‘powerful’ actions by these countries and those which are all above the per capita global average of emissions? Which countries does Sharma expect

India to influence? These are dangerous charades.

The IPCC had said that global net human-caused CO2 emissions would need to fall by 45% from the 2010 levels by 2030 to reach global net-zero by 2050. How then should we allocate the carbon budget of the future to make this happen, or an approximate of it? One possibility is to apportion it such that those above the per capita average emissions, with some grace for smaller populations, get much lesser space allowing those below to catch up. Raghuram Rajan has suggested a formula on such lines for determining contributions to, and allocations from, a climate change fund. CEEW has suggested that we could take the World Bank classification of a high-income economy as per capita income of $ 12,536 as a proxy for developed status, and then give such countries 10-15 years to reach net zero emissions. The authors have calculated that this would mean that the EU and the US would need to become net zero by 2035-40, China by 2045 and India by 2070. This is the only way to global and climate equity. India could perhaps advance its net zero date to 2060, but it should be contingent upon verifiable actions of the larger emitters and also on clear pathways of provision of global technology public goods and required financial assistance.

This brings us to the concept of ‘peaking’ which is a necessary complement to net zero, but it can be deceptive. Thirteen of the G20 countries have reached peaking in earlier years. Since their emissions are already on the decline, they now want all developing countries also to peak as quickly as possible. As experts have pointed out, this approach is clearly discriminatory. Developed countries are viewing energy policies only in the context of climate change while, for developing countries, this is only a part of their development process. Having reached required developmental levels, the emission problem of advanced economies is essentially ‘static’—replace existing fossil fuels with lower carbon alternatives. Energy consumption per se is not to increase. Their entire focus is on this. For developing countries, this is ‘dynamic’—energy policy must lead to better developmental outcomes whereby energy consumption must necessarily increase.

Argued differently, one can say that growth rate of GDP of developed countries will necessarily continue to be low, while that of developing countries will be higher in the future, and, as many have predicted, India may be among the highest. Since this will lead to increase in emissions, it also means that additional low-carbon alternatives would be required. Therefore, it will require much greater efforts for the transition, and because the time period to make it will be smaller, it will have much lower per capita income to support it and the impact of the change will be much more disruptive. Nevertheless, a peaking year would also be necessary for emerging economies as well as those whose average per capita emissions are higher than the global average. For the latter group, the possible peaking year could be 2030. For China, this must be 2025. India must also consider and perhaps 2040 is what we could commit to. This could be reconsidered after a few years, looking at technological developments and the nature of assistance actually provided. Both will also be essential factors to manage the transition between peak and net zero.

Many experts have argued that adopting a 2050 net zero target for India, or even a net zero concept, at this stage, would signal that it does not need the caveats that it negotiated into the Paris Agreement, and that it would abandon its longstanding position that developed countries should take the lead. It will also adversely affect its ability to leverage additional financing and technology transfer to help shift to low-carbon pathways. As a country with historically low emissions (amongst the lowest per capita), the only major country whose NDCs are compatible with 2oC, and, therefore, compliant with Paris agreement commitments, and one which has made ambitious RE targets, there must be exceptions.

India should propose alternative formulations and criteria that balance past and future emissions, establish equity, call for differentiated actions to provide a balance between economic growth and climate responsibility and yet be progressive in ambition. Indian experts should prepare and discuss such possibilities in the public domain quickly so that they become the focus of discussions. Any pledge by India must be linked to and be contingent upon and following verifiable actions by developed countries, China and all those which have above global per capita emissions average.

(The author is former chairman, UPSC, and former secretary, ministry of new and renewable energy. Views expressed are personal and not necessarily those of Financial Express Online)

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