Net-zero is not enough

Synopsis: A coherent programme of mitigation, adaptation and resilience is what India and every country in the world needs. The global climate discussion must focus clearly on the allocation of available carbon space that will allow countries to work out such a strategy.


The recent report issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has raised a red alert and demanded for more effective actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Consequently, the developed nations have come up with a net-zero carbon emission commitment for 2050 and China has responded with a similar commitment for 2060. India is now under pressure to announce its net-zero commitment.

Further, IPCC report states that having a specific temperature goal, getting to net-zero by some target date is alone not sufficient. The cumulative emissions up to that point also have to be consistent with the temperature rise target.

An analysis of Net zero Targets announced by developed countries defies IPCC’s recommendation.

What are the issues/concerns w.r.t ‘Net zero’ emission targets’ announced by some developed countries?

The commitments announced by the big emitters do not leave adequate carbon space for other countries: According to the IPCC report cited above, the carbon budget available for a 50 per cent chance of staying at or below a 1.5 °C temperature rise is 500 GtCO2 and for a 67 per cent chance is 400 GtCO2. However, cumulative emissions of these net-zero committed countries will be 485 Gigatonnes of CO2 (GtCO2) by the end of their target period.

Hence, the net-zero commitment by the big emitters will use up the entire carbon budget available for the 1.5 °C target and leave no room for any other country.

No recognition of the culpability for past emissions from 1850 to 2019, which have used up 2390 GtCO2 of carbon space.

Lack of intermediate commitments makes it unreliable: The goal set is decades into the future and making it legally binding is of no value. There are hardly any intermediate commitments leading to that distant goal for which these major emitters can be held accountable.

Does not account for Consumption based emission: Further the commitments made by the US, EU, UK and Japan are for the carbon emissions from the production in their territories, not from the emissions attributable to their consumption. Research have shown that since 1991 the impact of rising consumption, satisfied through imported carbon intensive goods, has increased in these countries.

Must Read: More companies pledge ‘net-zero’ emissions to fight climate change, but what does that really mean?

What is the way forward?

Firstly, Climate action must include a commitment to contain the carbon footprint of upper income consumers in all countries as the top 10 per cent of income earners contribute 48 per cent of the global carbon emission.

Secondly, netting of carbon emissions should not be through the purchase of carbon credits from countries but through actual actions such as reforestation to absorb carbon.

Thirdly, Countries like India must argue vigorously for a global agreement on the sharing of available carbon space, as estimated by the IPCC, on the basis of sound principles of climate justice.

Fourthly, Meeting the climate challenge involves mitigation, adaptation and resilience. Significant changes in ecosystems needs modifications in how we live and work. This requires a re-examination of virtually every area of development strategy and adapting it to manage expected changes in factors like temperature, water availability and sea level rise.

Finally, adaptation by itself may not be sufficient to cope with the growing climate instability. The IPCC report has assessed that, earth will see an increase of 4.1-5.6 times for extreme temperature, 1.5-1.7 times for extreme precipitation and 2.0-2.4 times for droughts, even if we succeed in restricting the temperature rise to 1.5-2 °C. So, we need to prepare for resilience to cope with these stresses, which we are already experiencing.

Source: This post is based on the following articles “Net-zero is not enough” published in Business standard on 28th Sep 2021.

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