Carbon neutral economy can be historical ‘new normal’

Offset-economy may trigger afforestation


December 11, 2020

/ By / New Delhi

Carbon neutral economy can be historical ‘new normal’

Currently, global greenhouse gas emissions are 62 pc higher than in 1992 when the plan of reining emissions of Green House Gases was agreed to by more than 190 countries at the Earth Summit in Rio-de-Janeiro

Though the Covid-19 pandemic offered a chance for the world to adopt a decarbonised and green world, much more needs to be done before this dream can come true, which it must if the world has to continue to exist.

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December 12, 2020, marks the 5th Anniversary of Paris Climate Agreement. The year 2020 is the only year since 1992 when the annual global meeting of United Nations Framework Conventions on Climate Change, UNFCCC, has not been held, due to COVID restrictions. Paradoxically, each year since 1992 the world witnessed the rise in the concentration of carbon dioxide except in 2020.  But all the trends reveal that it was the result of the global lockdown resulting in the economic slow-down that reflected in lower consumption of fossil fuels. After this illusional decline, which was also accompanied by a reduction in menacing air pollution and arrival of romantic blue skies in the first and second quarter of 2020, both emission and pollution levels have been on a rise again.

 Currently, global greenhouse gas emissions are 62 pc higher than in 1992 when the plan of reining emissions of Green House Gases (GHGs) was agreed to by more than 190 countries at the Earth Summit in Rio-de-Janeiro. Contrary to the plan, not only GHG concentrations are on the rise, but the temperature and sea-level rise and the extreme climatic events have become more frequent, more intense and more pervasive. Almost every calamity, be it wildfire, polar ice melting, terrorism,  refugee-crisis and even pandemics are considered as a direct or indirect consequence of the climate change.

Kyoto Protocol was agreed in 1997 which set a goal for 38 developed countries only and the goal was 5 pc reduction in GHG emissions by 2012 with a baseline of 1990. The final analysis shows that the Kyoto Protocol met with mild success and overall it was a huge failure. The reasons for fatally flawed Protocol are mainly three. Firstly, the USA never ratified the Kyoto Protocol though they signed it and Canada withdrew from the Protocol. So though the remaining 36 countries apparently met their individual targets overall target of reduction of 5 per cent for 38 countries was not met. Even for those 36 developed countries, the target was met in a dubious way. Former Soviet Union countries had already been forced to reduce their emissions due to the shrinking of their economies even before the Kyoto Protocol entered into force. Second, at least 10 countries used the trading mechanism to offset their increases thereby ‘faking’ the reduction. Third, many countries started importing the products from countries like China instead of producing in their own countries, thereby causing an increase in emissions in the developing countries and a reduction in developed countries. In the climate change parleys, it is named as ‘emission leakage’.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said earlier this month that humanity had engaged in a war against nature. Make no mistake, the robbing the habitat of the wild animals to make way for human settlements is in reality a war on nature. Increase in carbon-dioxide emissions that cannot be naturally offset by the ecological balance is indeed a war on nature. Many claim that one of the successes of humanity today is that we have avoided World War III. In reality, we are engaged in World War III, but instead of a country, it is with nature in a number of ways and on multi-frontiers.

Humanity, sadly,  is on the verge of losing that war. The goal as per Article 2 of the Paris Climate Agreement is ‘holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels’.

The world, unfortunately, remains grossly off track and on the brink of missing the goal of limiting the global temperature rise to 1.5° C. The global temperatures have already risen 1.2° C above pre-industrial level, as indicated in the latest data released by Geneva-based World Meteorological Organisation (WMO).

The analysis of Nationally Determined Contributions, NDCs, offered by each country under Paris Climate Agreement in 2015,  has been found to be miserably inadequate to limit the temperature rise even to the next fall-back goal of  2° C. As per UNEP’s Emission Gap Report of 2019, as per the NDCs offered by the countries, the world is on the trajectory of temperature rising 3.2° C.

India’s performance in meeting the NDCs has been among the top 10 countries of the world for the second year in succession. However, the performance of a single nation cannot help in meeting the collective climate goal of limiting the temperature below 2° C.

The message, therefore, is loud, hot and clear. Decarbonisation is the only vaccine for the next pandemic called, ‘Climate Change’.  That, however, needs Accelerated, Bold, Collective and Decisive ( ABCD) actions.

As per IPCC the goal of 2° C can be met only if the world becomes carbon-neutral by around the middle of this century. Carbon neutrality is defined as ‘net-zero’ emission, not zero emissions. Which means that world can reduce the emissions to the maximum extent by the use of renewable energy, biofuels, energy efficiency and remaining emissions can be offset by planting trees or by removing the emitted carbon dioxide by capturing and storing it in mechanical or any other means. The most preferred way of offsetting is afforestation which has a multitude of other advantages like favourable rains, less air pollution, use of forest products and also as afforestation means giving back what belongs to nature.

The Conference of the  Parties (COP) in Glasgow-UK that was to be held in 2020 could not take place due to pandemic. It is now expected to take place in 2021. However, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson will co-host a landmark global event convening global climate leaders on December 12, the 5th anniversary of the Paris Agreement, to rally much greater climate actions and ambition.

The year 2020 is likely to be the hottest year on the record as per the World Meteorological Organisation. Greenhouse gas concentrations will reach record levels in 2020. The climate impacts from unprecedented wildfires, hurricanes, air pollution, droughts and floods are destroying lives, jobs and businesses more than the pandemic will.

In light of this urgency, the event planned on December 12 is expected to bring leaders from across all levels of government, as well as the private sector and civil society, to present new measures boosting ambition and action. Already the EU ( 27 countries), UK, Japan, South Korea and China have declared that they would go carbon neutral between 2040 to 2060. There are others who also want to go carbon neutral with certain caveats. Many are in process of making carbon neutrality into law.

More countries are likely to declare the neutrality in coming months as the economy is set to step out of clutches of fossil fuel. The prices of renewables particularly solar energy are successfully competing with coal for electricity generation. There are reports that coal consumption has peaked in 2013 and it is unlikely to increase again. Oil and gas companies, which routinely oppose or pay lip service to clean energy, are expected to increase investment in renewables. International Energy Agency expects major companies and institutional investors would enhance the investments in new renewable capacity “tenfold” by 2025.

India is forecast to be the biggest contributor to ‘new normal’ doubling its renewable additions in 2021. Wind and solar additions are also expected to jump by 30 pc in both the U.S. and China.

Governments have started realising that renewables and energy efficiency are the areas where jobs and investment opportunities are strengthening and ‘new normal’ after Covid-19 may mean efficient vehicles, electrical transportation and  ‘journey towards carbon neutrality’. Hence the stimulus packages are increasingly being designed by the governments with decarbonisation in the mind.

Change of the political guard in the USA, China’s declaration of Carbon Neutrality by 2060 and India’s acclaimed massive push to efficiency and renewable are rekindling the hopes of ‘new normal’ world that is both decarbonised and green due to afforestation.

The author is chairman TERRE, IIT Alumnus and former director UNEP

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