Russia is the latest major economy to refuse to commit to ‘net zero by 2050’, joining China and India in taking a stance that puts one of the key objectives of the ongoing 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) at risk. The three countries are among the top five consumers of coal globally, with China alone consuming more than 50% and India a distant second at 11%. The United States and Germany are also among the leading consumers of the most polluting fossil fuel. The world has been heavily dependent on coal since the 1800s when it was first used to light and heat homes and as fuel for trains and ships. The carbon dioxide that is emitted from burning fossil fuels has heated up planet earth by 1°C since the beginning of the Industrial revolution in 1750. An increase to 1.5°C or 2°C will have devastating consequences for all countries, especially those in the Global North. Hence, the urgency to halt global warming by limiting carbon emissions.

NASA Global Climate Change projections show the impact of a 1.5°C or 2°C increase in the Earth's temperature
NASA Global Climate Change projections show the impact of a 1.5°C or 2°C increase in the Earth’s temperature which shows that Global South will fare better than the Global North, though extreme temperatures will also affect regions like Africa

What does net zero mean?

Net zero by 2050 is an ambitious target to achieve carbon neutrality by balancing the amount of carbon that is emitted into the earth’s atmosphere with the amount of carbon that is removed. Accountants will call this balancing the climate change ledger.

How will net zero be achieved?

There are three main pathways to achieving net zero by 2050.The first is to reduce the production of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) in key economic sectors. The biggest producer of GHGs in 2016 was energy used in industrial production (24.2%) with iron and steel accounting for a third of the total energy need. The energy used to power and heat residential and commercial buildings came in second (17.5%) and the transportation sector was third (16.2%), with road transportation the biggest offender. There has been a lot of press about eating less meat to save the planet, however livestock and manure account for only 5.8% of GHGs. These reductions can be achieved by implementing new policies such as zero emissions vehicles by 2035 and changing construction regulations to ensure more energy-efficient buildings in future.

The second pathway is to plant more trees as these absorb carbon dioxide and store it in their roots and leaves. The Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) estimates that 3.9 billion trees were cut down in the last 100 years to make way for urbanisation. However, scientists estimate that the world would need to plan 1 trillion trees, which would need 5-10 billion acres of land, equivalent to 2-4 times the size of the United States. The number of trees is equivalent to everyone on earth planting at least 150 trees each. Bottom line: the world will not be able to plant its way out of this mess.

The third pathway is to deploy costly Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) technology to capture up to 90% of carbon dioxide produced. CCS involves the capture, transportation, and storage of carbon dioxide in underground facilities or deep in the ocean, thus preventing it from entering the atmosphere. CCS has been in existence since the 1970s but suffered from low uptake because of the high set-up costs and the inability to monetise the capture carbon dioxide. There were less than 30 large-scale commercial CCS facilities globally at the end of 2020. It is unclear what will change to incentivise countries and companies to build more CCS facilities.

Is net zero by 2050 a realistic target?

Short answer, no. The world’s best hope of halting the climate change disaster is to aim for an overall reduction in energy consumption, but this will be in direct conflict with the need to sustain a modern way of living and industrialise. What will end up happening is the use of clever climate change accounting to demonstrate “progress”. The Paris Agreement kept the option of carbon offsetting, first established by the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, which will allow leading economies of the world to sponsor carbon offsetting projects in the developing world and use the certified emissions reduction (CERs) certificates to net-off emissions at home. The UN Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) is tracking over 8,000 such projects and yet we still have a climate problem? Do we really have to wait until COP54 in 2050 to realise that we are going about this all wrong?

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