World leaders who met at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow spoke of their pledges and commitment towards ‘Net Zero’ and ‘Global Net Zero’.
For those who are new to the ‘climate change’ conversation, ‘Net Zero’ is a phrase that has become common in the environmental lexicon. World leaders who met at the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference, also known as COP26 (Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC), spoke of their pledges and commitment towards ‘Net Zero’ and ‘Global Net Zero’.
However, both don’t mean the same. Climate movement activists have demanded “net zero emissions” by 2030 or 2050. But, many developing nations like China and India have pushed country pledges to 2060 and 2070, respectively.
Let’s explain why. First, by breaking down the concepts.
What is Net Zero?
Net zero emission refers to the balance between the amount of greenhouse gas produced and the amount removed from the atmosphere. We reach net zero when the amount we add is no more than the amount taken away.
Each country today has the responsibility to reduce/remove all man-made greenhouse gas emissions from the atmosphere through reduction measures, thus, reducing the earth’s net climate balance to zero. The removal can be done by creating natural and artificial carbon sinks to become carbon neutral and stabilise global temperature.
What are “negative emissions”?
According to MyClimate.org to reach “zero net emissions” and limit global warming to 1.5°C, it is necessary to remove and permanently store CO from the atmosphere. This is called Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR). As it is the opposite of emissions, these practices or technologies are often described as achieving “negative emissions” or “sinks”.
There is a direct link between zero net emissions and CDR. The earlier zero net emissions are achieved, the less CDR is necessary. Therefore, the projected amount of required CDR over the 21st century varies from 100 to 1’000 Gt CO.
CDR can be divided into three main groups: Biological, technological and geochemical processes.
Biological CDR enlarges natural sinks and includes several measures. Examples are:
Afforestation, i.e. large-scale plantation of trees, and sustainable forest management which stores carbon in soil and biomass.
Adapted land management to increase and permanently fix C from atmospheric CO2 in the soil. One example is through the incorporation of crop residues, reduced tillage, or even to renature peatland.
Pyrolysis of biomass to form charcoal (biochar) that keeps carbon in the soil for many years.
Examples of technological CDR are:
Removing CO2 directly from the exhaust gases of industrial processes and storing it elsewhere, e.g. underground (Direct Air Capture with Carbon Storage, “DACCS”).
Bioenergy utilisation in combination with carbon capture and storage means burning biomass in power plants, immediately capturing the CO2 underground (Bio-Energy with Carbon Capture and Storage, “BECCS”). This process combines biological and technological CDR.
Geochemical CDR includes measures such as:
Increasing ocean productivity
Developed vs. Developing Nations:
While, by current standards, China is the highest polluter followed by the USA, this data does not provide an analysis of, historically, which country emitted how much and what each country’s cumulative responsibility is.
Developed nations who had a lead in manufacturing and industries contributed more to global pollution than developing nations. Therefore, came the concept of ‘Global Net Zero’.
What is Global Net Zero?
The concept of ‘global net zero’ was introduced this year. India took the lead on this concept and it figured in the outcome of the Quad meeting held in Washington DC in September among India, US, Japan and Australia.
It is a concept where developed nations who gained a lot more in the past and therefore are in the ‘developed’ category ought to bear the burden of emission reduction more than ‘developing’ nations in order for the latter set of nations to develop as well.
For example, if the total global carbon emissions allowed is 10 for each country by 2030 or 2050, but developing nations like India and China will have to continue emitting 12 and 13 in order to reach ‘developed’ status, then those who have a historical advantage should bear the extra 5 by giving it among themselves and going negative on their carbon emissions.
For now, there has been no consensus on ‘net zero’. Achieving ‘global net zero’ and asking developed nations to sacrifice is a rather far-fetched goal.
The IPCC demonstrates in its most recent report of 2018 that net emissions must be reduced to zero in order to stabilize global temperatures.
The report also states that any scenario that does not involve a reduction to zero will not stop climate change. This objective has been ratified by Switzerland, the EU and many other countries, under the Paris Agreement.