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A world beset by consequences of Climate Change -- the raging fires in California or the flashfloods in Assam -- the term "Net-Zero" is now seen as a panacea to all our anthropogenic ills. Countries across the board have made commitments to Net-Zero emissions. Even corporates are joining the bandwagon, talking about the measures being undertaken on the road to Net-Zero.

The biggest thrust to Net-Zero came recently when President Xi Jinping surprised the global community when in his video message to the UN General Assembly in September 2020, he announced that China would achieve Net-Zero emissions by 2060. Considering that China currently accounts for almost 28% of global emissions, this is huge. Still, many are yet to commit.

One crucial question, however, remains unanswered and that is whether these commitments are enough?

Many of these commitments are voluntary and not binding. Namely, if a country or company misses the targets, there aren't any penalties to pay. We have already seen European countries falter on their emission reduction targets that were to happen in the past.

Mind you, there is hardly any alternative to Net-Zero emission. What we also need is a structured, systematic and empirical approach to it. For instance, we witnessed reduced GHG emissions due to the COVID-19 pandemic. If we would make the right efforts in the recovery period, it will be one of the best chances in our journey towards Net-Zero.

The Dual Approach

As we hope to have more commitments and announcements, it is essential to start the discussion on the road that will be taken towards Net-Zero. It goes without saying that the journey to destination Net-Zero is made up of many small milestones. The way forward is to combine two approaches; the first to stop/reduce GHG emissions and the second to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. The vital factor is the balance between the two streams towards the Net-Zero. 

Let's take up the GHG reduction plans; we need to break the target to various sectors. It is essential to realize that there will be some low-hanging fruits and there will be some that will remain beyond reach. It is essential to start the policy directions at the earliest in some sectors as it will take time for transformations to happen in energy systems or land use that will result in desired outcomes. It is also essential in this planning process to take note that the bottom-up approach has not worked in the past. If we wait for each sector to submit its contribution voluntarily, it is not going to work. For instance, as has been analyzed by a number of research agencies, the ensemble of Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) never really added up for the target reduction of 1.5 C as planned. 

Climate Change is a global issue, it does not matter where emission reductions are achieved, and hence the solutions can transcend across the world. The option of cross-boundary collaborations and market mechanisms will have to be evolved even in these dynamics as the world trade is still dispersed around the globe.

A systems perspective is critical in road map planning. The policies and actions in one area should not unlock challenges in other dimensions of sustainable development. The overreliance in some dimensions can result in new challenges and will not be a sustainable solution. For ex., the targets around biofuels need to be evaluated against the impacts of land-use change and resulting food security and biodiversity challenges. A life cycle approach to the alternatives planned will be very useful. Even the variable renewable energy sources across the day or season need systemic planning with grid balance and storage. 

As we plan the mitigation journey, we need to design systems keeping in mind the adaptation requirements resulting from the intensification of impacts. The first case of bankruptcy quoting climate change as reason is a concrete illustration. There is no switch to reverse the direction. Even the most ambitious and rapid achievement of Net-Zero will still result in further warming in the coming decades. 

Now speaking about removing CO2 from the atmosphere. The negative emission route through carbon sequestration needs to be balanced well with the mitigation targets. Unlike emissions prevented, the removal and locking in forests, soil and other forms have a risk of leakage. To add to that, the offset through sequestration will require land. This will mean more competition for available land. Increased focus in this sphere will also have an impact on biodiversity if not appropriately planned. We have already heard the news of increased green cover but with decreased biodiversity. Afforestation needs to take a landscape approach than of monoculture plantation. The cost dynamics might show negative emission routes more favorable than mitigation, but if we take this path, it will reduce our focus on the mitigation actions. In the process, we might be replacing near-future emission reduction with distant future emission increase. The offset should not be seen as a legitimisation to continued emissions.

Looking Beyond Net-Zero

The Net-Zero targets are currently betting heavily on future technologies. Hence the progress on these has to be backed with appropriate emphasis on R&D. It will also be prudent to plan alternatives and hedge them across multiple alternatives. The jury is still out on many of the promising technologies. 

It is also not just about technologies, there must be a focus on behavioral change. There have to be discussions about consumption patterns, wastages etc. Search engines, social media, ecommerce and our educational system, all have a role in this direction.

In the end, Net-Zero commitments are only the starting point. Even if we were to reach the goal of Net-Zero emissions by 2050, it necessarily wouldn't be enough to reduce the CO2 concentrations to safer levels. Thus, our perspective should not be limited to Net-Zero; instead, we need to plan beyond Net-Zero.

The road to Net-Zero and beyond looks challenging and quite daunting. But as they say, a journey of a thousand miles starts with one small step. We just need to firm up our resolve and take that step.

(A version of this article appeared in The Financial Express on November 7, 2020 )