Net zero or carbon neutral? What matters is the intent to change

A ‘net zero carbon emitter’ removes as much carbon from the air as it emits. India hasn’t committed to net zero so far, but how long can the world’s fourth largest polluter resist and not commit?

Besides New Zealand, the UK, China, Japan, South Korea, Sweden, Denmark and Hungary are the other countries that have pledged to become ‘net zero’ emitters by the year 2050. Illustration: Immayabharathi K

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern recently declared a climate emergency, a symbolic step towards recognizing the challenge of climate change and expressing her country’s commitment towards reducing levels of CO2 – a Greenhouse Gas (GHG) – which can stay in the atmosphere from 300 years to 1,000 years!

Also read: In climate change fight, here’s how India can exceed Paris accord targets

The move is seen as an extension of the Paris Agreement of 2015 which aims to limit the global temperature rise well below two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels with its member countries making efforts towards limiting the temperature rise to an ambitious 1.5 degrees Celsius.

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Besides New Zealand, the UK, China, Japan, South Korea, Sweden, Denmark and Hungary are the other countries that have pledged to become ‘net zero’ emitters by the year 2050. India, the fourth largest polluter in the world, hasn’t given any such commitment yet.

Also read: ‘Breathing Here Is Injurious to Your Health:’ How pollution affects life

What are Greenhouse Gases (GHGs)?

Carbon dioxide, methane, ozone, nitrous oxide, chloro fluoro carbons (CFCs) and hydro fluorocarbons (HFCs) are the prominent GHGs, which trap sun’s heat and increase earth’s temperature. GHGs have always been a part of the earth’s atmosphere.

Without them, earth would have been a ball of snow.

Today, however, due to excessive burning of fossil fuels and subsequent pollution, the amount of GHGs is increasing, so much so that the long waves of the sun do not get reflected back from the earth’s surface, resulting in rise in average earth temperature. Increased heat disturbs earth’s balance resulting in excess and imbalance of heat, cold, rain and drought.

What is net zero emission

A ‘net zero carbon emitter’ removes as much carbon from the air as it emits. Bhutan in Asia and Suriname in South America are the only countries that already absorb more greenhouse gases (GHGs) than they emit. So the two countries are carbon negative.

When a country becomes carbon negative, it can sell its carbon “credits”, which are created by assigning a dollar value to emissions reduced or avoided. Polluters buy these credits to offset their emissions.

For example, when the UK declared it wants to become carbon neutral by 2050, it left a provision to buy carbon credits. This would mean the UK can continue to emit carbon and simply pay other countries to plant trees in their countries.

Climate change experts say this was not a good idea and the ultimate objective of the Paris Agreement is to reduce emissions and increase carbon sinks.

Net-zero or carbon neutral

The earth is grappling with this problem, commonly known as climate change, for many years now. The Paris Agreement gave world nations a chance to commit themselves to reducing their CO2 levels to an extent that by the year 2050 the total amount of GHGs in the atmosphere would be optimum for life to thrive.

Related podcast: Carbon footprint calculator tells how lifestyle contributes to climate change

Dr. Ajita Tiwari Padhi, lead climate policy, advocacy with the Indian Network on Ethics and Climate Change (INECC), Mumbai, doesn’t believe net zero emission is the right term to be used today. “To start with, I would say countries should strive for net carbon neutrality with a vision to achieve net zero emission. The term net zero, in my opinion, is when countries stop emitting carbon in the air, which will be an ideal condition to achieve. Of course, the world should strive to become a net zero emitter of carbon, but right now it would be sufficient if they could reach a stage of neutrality where they absorb or sequester as much carbon as they emit.”

India should raise the bar

India is on path to reduce its carbon emission intensity (growth rate) and would easily meet its targets or Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) especially with its initial successes in expanding solar, wind and biomass capacity additions.

“In 2014, Prime Minister Modi promised to expand renewable energy to 175 GW by 2022. It looked like a big deal then, but now we know it is a doable task. In fact, India could conveniently meet its 2030 renewable energy targets before time. But the question is that is it enough to mitigate effects of climate change?” asks Dr Ajita Tiwari Padhi, adding, “The answer is a resounding no.”

The fact is that the initial NDCs set by India were low hanging fruits and the country needs to do much more in terms of reducing fossil fuel use, expanding solar, wind capacity additions and improving carbon sinks (planting more trees to absorb more CO2). “Complacency is setting in and India is going a little easy on meeting the climate change challenge. India should raise the bar and aim for decarbonisation” said Dr Padhi.

What the world expects from India?

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, the world must completely stop using coal to meet its energy needs and shift completely towards renewables (solar, wind, biomass etc) and gas to keep earth’s warming under 1.5 degree C. Unfortunately, about 25% of global coal usage today happens in India.

Second, India must also focus on ways to remove large amounts of carbon from the atmosphere. There are two ways to do so—technological and natural. The best known technological solutions are carbon capture and storage (CCS) — not an easy option. The natural solutions come in the form of carbon “sinks” such as forests that can absorb CO2 from air and fix it in the soil where it belongs.

As a signatory to the Paris Agreement, India had committed to creating a cumulative carbon sink of 2.5-3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent by 2030. Currently, India’s forest and tree cover is about 24 per cent of its geographical area. India wants to increase it to at least 33 per cent. To create the required carbon sink, India should have a minimum of one-third of the total land area under forest and tree cover, but the government’s plantation drives under Green India Mission have consistently failed to deliver the desired results.

Net zero, or precisely carbon neutrality, is a necessity for human life to survive on earth. However, to achieve that, countries cannot wait till 2050. A European climate policy think tank ‘Sandbag’, says that only if we act before the year 2030 that we can ensure global warming remains within 2 degrees Celsius by the year 2100.

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