One outcome of the recent UN Climate Summit, or COP26, was that 136 countries pledged to reach net zero, with countries responsible for nearly half of global emissions aiming for 2050, while others have target dates further in the future.
To avoid the catastrophic impacts of climate change, we need to keep the planet from warming more than 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. This means that carbon dioxide emissions need to fall 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050.
What does net zero mean, and are these targets ambitious enough to stave off the worst of climate change?
The concept of net-zero carbon emissions has emerged from physical climate science. However, it is operationalized through social, political and economic systems.
Greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide (CO2) are released when we burn oil, gas and coal from our homes, factories and transport. Methane is produced through farming and landfill. These gases cause global warming by trapping the sun’s energy. Meanwhile, rapid deforestation across the world means there are fewer trees and plants to absorb CO2.
Net zero means that the greenhouse gas emissions produced by a country, state, city, company or even a building are counterbalanced by an equal amount of emissions that are reduced. This is not the same as zero emissions, which means that no carbon or other greenhouse gases are released at all, or carbon negative, which means that more carbon is removed than is emitted. It means that greenhouse gases are still being emitted, but the emissions are offset through some action taken.
Under the 2015 Paris Agreement, 197 countries agreed to try to keep temperature rises “well below” 1.5°C to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.
The term net zero is important because – for CO2 at least – this is the state at which global warming stops. Achieving it means reducing emissions as much as possible, as well as balancing out any that remain by removing an equivalent amount.
The Paris Agreement underlines the need for net zero, requiring states to ‘achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century’. Experts say that to achieve this, net zero must be reached by 2050.
Net zero and CO2 emissions
Not all emissions can be reduced to zero, so those that remain have to be compensated for, or offset – for example, by planting more trees.
Almost every country has embarked on tree planting as a cheap way of reducing carbon, although there may not be enough space for the number required.
Carbon capture and storage has also been suggested as another solution.
This involves using machinery to remove carbon from the air, then solidifying it and burying it underground.
However, the technology is still emerging, very expensive and as yet unproven.
More than 130 countries have pledged to reach net zero emissions before 2050.
1. The United Kingdom has pledged:
· £620m in grants for electric vehicles and charging points, plus £350m to help the transition from petrol
· Grants of up to £5,000 for householders to install low-carbon heat pumps
· £120m to develop small nuclear reactors (no announcement on the go-ahead for the Sizewell C nuclear power station in Suffolk)
· £625m for tree planting and peat restoration
· More money for carbon capture and storage hubs
China – currently the biggest producer of CO2 in the world – says it’s aiming for “carbon neutrality” by 2060. It hasn’t set out exactly what this means or how it will get there.
The third-largest producer of oil worldwide, Russia has also pledged to reach net zero by 2060, although its draft commitment hasn’t been legally ratified. Until recently, President Putin dismissed the risks posed by rising temperatures.
4. United States
US President Joe Biden criticised the Russian and Chinese leaders for not attending the COP26. He also unveiled the US plan to achieve economy-wide net zero emissions “by no later than 2050”.
Unsurprisingly, the strategy says the US will deploy a spectrum of new technologies to hit the target: renewable energy sources; sustainable fuels, e.g. hydrogen and biofuels; and energy-saving technologies. But it repeatedly mentions nuclear power as part of a green energy mix.
The world’s fourth biggest emitter of CO2 after China, the US and the EU, India has promised to cut its emissions to net zero by 2070.
Some of the world’s most heavily populated countries — including Indonesia — haven’t made any net zero commitment. But many of the announcements which have already come out of the COP26 summit on deforestation, cutting methane and reducing coal are directly linked to helping countries hit their net zero goal.
Case of Pakistan
Pakistan has not announced a net-zero year. Pakistan’s Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) is ambitious in the short term, committing to cut 50pc of projected emissions and achieve 60 percent renewable energy by 2030. However, many questions remain about its feasibility and implementation.
In the words of Malik Amin Aslam, Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Climate Change, “In Pakistan, we don’t believe in the net-zero concept at the moment. We believe in the concept of a decisive decade in the next 10 years. If the world does not change in the next 10 years, then we’ll be too late for any net-zeros in 2050, 2060 or 2070. I believe that net-zero, if it translates into concrete action in the next decade, is good, but most of these announcements are just announcements. Pakistan has done something different, a very clear directional shift [is] happening in the next 10 years – going 60 percent zero carbon [in energy production] by 2030; clean transport, going 30 percent electric by 2030; and trusting and investing in nature. We have the Ten Billion Tree Tsunami, which is already ongoing; 15 new national parks being declared in the last year alone; Recharge Pakistan, using floodwaters for restoring our wetlands and managing and adapting to climate change. We want to reinvigorate the momentum for these initiatives in the coming decade. The last decade has been a decade of disappointment on climate change, and the next decade has to be the decade of action. If that doesn’t happen, net-zero doesn’t matter.”
Problems with the net zero target
There is some controversy about how some countries might try to reach net zero.
For instance, Country A might record lower emissions if it shuts down energy-intensive industries such as steel production.
But if Country A then imports steel from Country B, it’s effectively handed on its carbon emissions to Country B instead of reducing the sum total of greenhouse gases.
There are schemes that enable rich countries to offset their emissions by paying poorer countries to switch to cleaner fuels.
However, some climate scientists worry such arrangements could let wealthier nations avoid reducing their own fossil fuel usage.
And it’s hard to say that initiatives funded to offset emissions elsewhere would not have happened anyway.
Net zero pledges do need to be more effective and credible, however. While there are voluntary markets and a few local compliance markets in California and the EU, what is necessary is a global compliance market with very clear regulations. How do you monitor, verify and ultimately enforce those regulations?” If there’s no penalty for violating whatever those regulations are, you’re going to get credits that are not really reducing emissions.
According to Net Zero Tracker, net zero timelines also need to jibe with the science. It says that emissions must be cut 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030 to reach net zero by 2050.
Net zero pledges must include all greenhouse gases, including methane, and all emissions a country produces, including exports and the emissions of products made outside a country. For companies, this means direct emissions; emissions produced by the power they use and everything in their value chain. And the priority should be on cutting emissions, not just offsetting them.
Countries need to have specific policies they will implement to reach net zero, such as strategies to increase renewable energy, plans for natural climate solutions, or clean energy incentives for industries. In addition, the policies should be legally binding so that there is accountability.
The writer is a member of staff.