A brief history of climate change:
Before understanding the concept of Net-Zero, it becomes important to understand the development timeline when it comes to climate change, the progress, promises, and the proposals made.
Not far away in history, it was the discovery of the steam engine paving the way for the industrial revolution. Carbon emissions from fossil fuel burning reached one billion tonnes per year with large-scale use of coal in the 1920s. In 1955, a US researcher discovered that doubling CO2 concentrations would increase the temperature by 3-4° Celsius.
Later the term “Global warming” was put into the public domain in the title of a scientific paper.
Timeline of significant events:
- 1972- first UN conference on the human environment was held in Stockholm. However, the irony remained, climate change hardly registered on the agenda.
- 1979- Geneva Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution
- 1987- Montreal protocol on substances that deplete the ozone layer
- 1990- IPCC produces the First Assessment Report.
- 1992- Rio earth summit, agreed on UNFCCC
- 1997- Kyoto protocol (COP 3)
- 2006 – The Stern Review concludes that climate change could damage global GDP by up to 20% if left unchecked.
- 2015- paris agreement (COP 21)
- 2021- glasgow conference (COP 26)
What is NET-ZERO?
Net-zero refers to a balance where emissions of greenhouse gases are offset by the absorption of an equivalent amount from the atmosphere. We know that the Earth’s regenerative capacity allows it to balance the composition of various elements through its natural cycles, thus maintaining equilibrium.
However, when there is an excess of elements in nature, this natural recycling capacity takes a hit. Thus, disturbing the fragile balance of the ecosystem.
Think about it like a bathtub – turn on the taps and add more water, pull out the plug, and water flows out. The amount of water in the bathtub depends on the input from the taps and the output via the plughole. So to keep the amount of water in the tub at the same level, you need to ensure that the input and output are balanced.
In a scenario where you fail to maintain your bathtub, the plug is compromised. Keep the tap running now, and in the absence of proper drainage, your tub will overflow.
Similarly, the unleashed larger-scale anthropogenic activities have caused unprecedented damage on Earth. Now, oceans, the atmosphere, etc., are overflowing like the bathtub with a damaged plughole since this is beyond the ecosystem’s carrying capacity.
NET-ZERO : why is it necessary?
The “carbon budget” science says that the eventual extent of global warming is proportional to the total amount of CO2 that anthropogenic emissions have added to the atmosphere. So, to stabilize climate change, CO2 emissions need to fall to zero.
Global carbon dioxide emissions are already rebounding and rising as economies recover from last year’s pandemic‐induced shock. The health cum economic crisis was an opportunity for a profound, systemic shift to a more sustainable economy, but the lockdowns and bans were temporary.
It was surprising to see how rapidly nature recovered and the drop in pollution levels during the lockdowns. This was an eye-opener to the world order that humanity can still flourish for ages to come if we control our emissions. Although the recovery phase did not last long as nations hurried to unleash economic recovery, pointing out the question: How can we balance development and environment.
IPCC findings stress more on NET-ZERO
- From 1880 to 2012, the average global temperature increased by 0.85°C leading to yield reduction in significant crops.
- From 1901 to 2010, the global average sea level rose by 19 cm as oceans expanded due to warming and ice melted.
- Global emissions of CO2 have increased by almost 50% since 1990.
- Total global emissions will need to fall by 45% from 2010 levels by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050 if we want to be in the fight against global warming.
The Environmental rule of law: Is it a greenwashing agenda?
A UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment said,
“Unless the environmental rule of law is strengthened, even seemingly rigorous rules are destined to fail, and the fundamental human right to a healthy environment will go unfulfilled.”
Multiple factors contribute to poor enforcement- poor coordination across government agencies. Weak institutional capacity, lack of access to information, corruption, and stifled civic engagement. Combined with lack of political will, criminalization and increasing attacks on environment defenders are a cause of concern.
Despite countries like Australia, New Zealand has environmental courts and many countries granting the constitutional right to a healthy environment.
This situation still remains grim. Companies and organizations are spending more time and money claiming to be green than they really are. Reaching their environmental-friendly image through advertising and marketing than implementing business practices that minimize environmental impact.
It seems like commerce and industry are unlikely to modify their behaviour and production patterns to benefit the environment. These steps won’t be actively pursued without societal pressures or mandatory CSR (corporate social responsibility) commitments.
Let’s take the example of the NGT act 2010, which had put in place the National Green Tribunal. Despite being a quasi-judicial body, it lacks power. The tribunal can only issue recommendations that can be challenged in a court of law, including high courts, limiting the tribunal’s authority. As a result, it holds much lesser powers than the UK’s Environmental Agency (EA).
This is a significant example of another Indian toothless tiger. Just like the Indian National Human Rights Commission, questioning our seriousness and involvement to tackle such problems.
To sum up, capitalist production, mass manufacturing, short-term growth indicators, misleading sustainability claims, and ambitious targets contribute to environmental degradation.
Or is it a real deal?
These laws impose an affirmative duty on humans to make choices consistent with ecological integrity and planetary boundaries- they encourage governments on “what to do” and “what not to do”.
For example- the Montreal protocol is considered “unique in the annals of international diplomacy”. So if it worked, why didn’t others? Because it offered big players more significant gains in terms of “public goods” like clean air, healthy ozone layer, the improvements in terms of lives saved, low implementing cost, punishment for violators, and rewards for compliers.
Another instance of the continuing neglect of the Paris rulebook is its failure to acknowledge the Katowice CoP to take into account the findings of the IPCC’s Special Report on 1.5°C,” a statement by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE).
The need to introduce new concepts, plans, targets seem overwhelming but are necessary to bring changes. It creates conscious living citizens who are experiencing behavioural change. Example- veganism, plant-based diet, cruelty-free products, eco-friendly brands, etc. Other benefits include-
- Investing in a low carbon economy would create 1.5 million additional jobs by 2022.
- “Net zero by 2050” targets would make possible a shift to a “green economy” and leveraging unconventional energy sources. Example- CBM, renewables.
- Considerable savings in health expenditure.
- Sustainable urban planning
- Cutting oil import bills and narrowing CAD
The truth is that instruments used for environmental protection are subject to political will, public acceptability and timely implementation.
Nation-states: race to net-zero
137 countries out of 192 are signatories to the UN Climate Convention, accounting for 80% of global emissions and pledging to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.
The USA’s pledge plans to cut its emissions by 65% by the end of this decade before reaching carbon neutrality by 2050. It also plans for 100% carbon pollution-free electricity by 2035.
Moreover, the Better Act has about half a trillion dollars in climate change measures, such as incentives for electric cars, tax credits for renewable energy production, etc.
EU’s pledge- 55% net emissions reduction target by 2030, which considers carbon removals from forestry activities. This target paves the way for achieving climate neutrality in the EU by 2050, which is the objective of the European green deal.
Furthermore, in line with the Paris agreement, the EU member states must develop national long-term strategies. The European environmental agency says that the EU’s net emissions in 2020 were already 34% lower than in 1990.
China’s pledge- net zero before 2060 target. China’s long-awaited 14th Five Year Plan, published in March 2021, targets to reduce carbon emissions per unit of GDP by 18% in the next five years.
In addition, China has committed itself to raising its non-fossil fuel share of primary energy to 20% by 2025 and 25% by 2030 and increasing the total installed capacity of solar and wind to 1200 GW by 2030.
A net-zero by 2070 as India’s emission intensity is below the global average. The net-zero commitment is part of a strategy of Panchamrit or “five elixirs.” The immediate goals are:
- Reaching a non-fossil fuel energy capacity of 500 GW by 2030.
- Fulfilling 50 per cent energy requirements via renewable energy by 2030
- Reducing CO2 emissions by 1 million tons by 2030
- Reducing carbon intensity below 45 per cent by 2030.
Climate finance: yay or nay?
During COP 15, it was agreed that developed countries would mobilize $100 billion for developing nations to cope with mitigation and adaptation by 2020. This was done in the spirit of “common but differentiated responsibility and respective capabilities” (CBDR-RC). But the west has a poor track record of such transfers.
Developing economies should receive the financing and technical know‐how they need to continue building their energy systems to meet the needs of their expanding populations and economies sustainably. Advanced economies have to reach net-zero before emerging markets and developing economies and assist others in getting there.
The UN Secretary-General has proposed six positive climate actions for governments to take post-recovery.
- Green transition: Investments must accelerate the decarbonization of all aspects of our economy.
- Green jobs and sustainable and inclusive growth
- Green economy: making societies and people more resilient through a fair transition and leaving no one behind.
- Invest in sustainable solutions: fossil fuel subsidies must end, and polluters must pay for their pollution.
- Confront all climate risks
- Cooperation- no country can succeed alone.
This gap between rhetoric and action needs to be closed if we have a fighting chance of reaching net-zero by 2050. Citizens must be active participants in the entire process, making them feel part of the transition and not simply subject to it.
Its time that the nation-states must rise above their national interest and act in synergy if humanity wishes to persist. The Covid-19 Pandemic is the prime example, what nature’s fury can unleash. Although minuscule, there is still time left to revert back the damage we have caused. What’s frightening is reaching a point of no return!
About the Author:
Manali Mathur is a freelance editor and research enthusiast. Although she enjoys open-hearted conversations about life, being an extrovert with humour comes in handy. She pursued a master’s in political science from Delhi University and was a former intern at NHRC, Delhi. Her core areas of interest lie in public policy, diplomacy, environment, governance, administration.