Towards a net-zero emissions world

06 Oct 2019


The writer is an Islamabad-based expert on climate change and development.
The writer is an Islamabad-based expert on climate change and development.

THE concept of ‘net’ zero in carbon emissions is fast gaining currency in the global climate discourse. It has in many ways made the complex scientific debate on the 1.5 degrees Centigrade or 2°C increase relatively easy to communicate. The emerging language now speaks about targets that are easier to understand by national governments: strike zero or net-zero level of carbon emissions well before 2050.

The Paris Agreement seemed ambitious and visionary only a few years ago in 2015. It has now fallen behind the curve of climate urgency ie even if all countries were to meet their commitments under the agreement, the world would still witness more than a 3°C increase.

A recent chain of climate-induced extreme events has shaken the world: heatwaves in Europe, Dorian and other hurricanes in North America, forest fires in the Amazon, permafrost in Antarctica, hottest mean average days across the globe. The world has begun to hit the panic button. The prospect of a 2°C increase in average temperatures is menacing enough, let alone the drift towards 3°C or more.

The language of climate discourse has changed. UN chief António Guterres refers to it as a climate catastrophe and had asked heads of states to come to the Climate Summit with a plan to be carbon neutral by 2050, and to commit to not commissioning any coal-powered plans after that. Growing global demands are even more radical: carbon neutrality by 2025, decommission coal-power plants, and eliminate subsidies on fossil fuels.

There are many benefits for Pakistan if it publicly commits to becoming carbon neutral by 2050.

Some leaders had already laid the foundation for carbon-neutral development when in December 2017, 19 countries and 32 cities developed long-term partnerships for net-zero emission. This Carbon Neutrality Coalition decided to share experiences, information, tools and case studies on the socioeconomic benefits of the transition to net-zero development.

Many of them are now pushing their national targets forward: Norway has announced it will become carbon neutral in 2030, Finland in 2035, Sweden and the UK in 2045. The UK, Norway, Sweden and France have become the first four countries to convert net-zero emissions into law. Over a dozen others are setting their targets and considering legislation.

The EU is moving towards increasing its emissions reduction target to 55 per cent by 2030. While hundreds of states, cities and towns, companies and campuses have declared a climate emergency, this is not the same as having zero-carbon emissions plans.

China and India, among the world’s biggest emitters, have a two-track strategy: moving relentlessly to increase the share of renewable energy in their overall energy mix and to become global leaders in solar and wind energy production and usage.

This has accelerated their economic growth and put them in a position to engage with the EU and the US. On the other hand, together with Brazil and South Africa, the two other BASIC countries, they are arguing that countries that industrialised first must take the lead in zero-carbon efforts. The concern is that the ‘net’ in ‘net-zero’ should not provide the developed countries a cover to shift their carbon burden to poorer nations.

But while ‘net-zero’ emissions may sound similar to ‘zero-emissions’, the two concepts are not the same and have different consequences. The word ‘net’ in ‘net-zero’ hides a range of controversies and loopholes. Key Negative Emission Technologies such as biofuels, bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, and bio-char are not fully tested.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has acknowledged serious questions about their technological feasibility. While avionics and agriculture and some other sectors have still not progressed sufficiently to give absolutely zero emissions, others like cement and shipping are on the verge of doing so. Therefore, de-carbonisation of the economy will not be even across sectors, and there is space for emissions trading nationally or internationally.

Such trading can potentially become lucrative and delay real action. As a report by ActionAid pointed out, this could also drive land grabs and increase food insecurity for the poor through the large-scale use of land, biofuels and biomass to absorb rising carbon dioxide emissions. Instead of requiring real emissions cuts, ‘net’ counting could allow for business-as-usual greenhouse gas emissions, offset by massive-scale mitigation through the land sector.

Because of such technical limitations to carbon reduction, it is not always easy to judge the credibility of national targets. Norway, for example, has a radical target to achieve carbon neutrality. However, it relies heavily on investment in overseas carbon-reduction projects to achieve this target. Meanwhile, the country continues to export oil.

On the other hand, the UK’s roadmap cautions against using international offsets. It leans, instead, in favour of controversial and commercially unproven bioenergy with carbon capture and storage. This entails growing fuel-crops that absorb CO2, then capturing and burying the emissions. The growing global argument is to focus on in-country action and nature-based solutions like forest expansion.

There are many benefits for Pakistan if it publicly commits to becoming carbon neutral by 2050, scaling down and rolling back coal-powered plants, and doubling its ambition of generating 30pc renewable energy by 2030. Pakistan need not be a mere spectator in the global net-zero discourse and can consider joining the Carbon Neutrality Coalition, as have Mexico and Ethiopia, and build investment partnerships with the members.

Finally, like China and India, Pakistan can have a dual-track strategy of accelerating investments in renewable energy while engaging with the world on the principles of equity. Paradoxically, we can oppose international emissions trade for a faster transition to a carbon-neutral world, and concurrently seek short-term emissions trading opportunities in our 10 billion-tree afforestation plan. Proactive engagement will help Pakistan attract climate finance, propel economic growth and address climate vulnerabilities. The choice is ours.

The writer is an Islamabad-based expert on climate change and development.

Published in Dawn, October 6th, 2019