A majority of the models assessed in the IPCC reports are produced in the Global North, leading to the continuation of a specific development model which results in an inadequate representation of the Global South. Photo: Elsevier

Net zero targets: A shot in the dark at mitigating climate change

Countries, especially in the Global North, need to formulate plans that are more objectively fair and realistic in their execution to effectively combat the climate crisis 

More than 128 countries, 235 cities and 702 publicly listed companies in the Forbes Global 2000 have already declared some form of net-zero commitments, a 2022 report by Net Zero Tracker noted. These declarations are a part of the efforts to control the negative impacts of climate change, or what is more commonly known as ‘climate change mitigation’ measures.

In June 2022, India emphasised at the Bonn climate conference that future climate mitigation efforts should respect the climate targets committed under Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), following the 2015 Paris Agreement, reported the Third World Network’s climate update. 

The importance of India’s stand at Bonn needs to be understood in light of the race to ‘net zero’ that the world seems to have embarked upon, as part of their climate action plans.

A country or company can attain ‘net-zero’ emissions by removing the same amount of greenhouse gas (GHGs) emissions that it has produced. Simply put—the net difference between emissions removed and produced should be zero to claim ‘net-zero’ status. When applied to CO2 or greenhouse gas emissions, this becomes ‘net-zero CO2’ or ‘net-zero GHG’ emissions.

According to the sixth assessment report (AR6) of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), attaining net-zero CO2 emissions can play a crucial role in restricting the rise in global average temperature to below 2°C.

The AR6 points out this could be achieved by using different methods of ‘carbon dioxide removal’ (CDR). This, however, is easier said than done. Although across the world different projects for CDR are being explored, as of now  the most feasible method for removing carbon dioxide at scale appears to be through afforestation. 

Given that a major share of afforestation potential lies in tropical regions, which is where most developing countries (sub-Saharan Africa and Asia) are located, the burden of implementing CDR is likely to fall on them. This is because the idea of ‘net zero’ would work only if it is implemented within a limited time frame, say 2050. And, waiting for CDR technologies to evolve before adapting measures for removing emissions would be a gamble—with the collective global future at stake.

Roots of net zero

The science of net zero was first mentioned in a 2018 report of the IPCC. This was followed by the sixth annual assessment (AR6) reports of IPCC in 2021, which details it further. The report of Working Group 3 (WG3) in AR6 focuses particularly on ways for attaining net zero.

The WG3 assessed more than 1,200 models, out of which five broad situations for mitigation action were assessed further. Each situation reflects the impact of factors like global population, economic growth, energy consumption, use of renewables, and CDRs, on environment and society.

With a huge number of variables involved, these models make certain assumptions to arrive at conclusions. The findings, therefore, should be viewed within the context of those assumptions. This is a fact that even the IPCC reports mention. But since it is not included in the summary for policymakers (SPM), it receives little public attention.

A recent study published in The Lancet Planetary Health points to a crucial limitation of the models assessed in AR6. The models maintain existing global inequalities in energy consumption till the 21st century while calculating projections for the year by which net zero emissions should be achieved by different regions. 

For instance, countries in Africa and the Middle East are allocated 30 gigajoules of energy per capita per year. While OECD countries and Europe are allocated three times that amount, at 100 gigajoules per capita per year till the end of the century. 

“This happens because these models draw future energy growth projections on the basis of current usage levels,” explains Tejal Kanitkar, a specialist in energy and climate change policy, and associate professor at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru. “Due to which countries in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, which are using low levels of energy now, are expected to continue with the same levels of energy use well into the century. While countries in the Global North are allowed to continue their high levels of energy use.” 

In short, the models are not only flawed, but could also be seen as problematic. 

A key assumption in the above example is that developed countries can continue to have high levels of emission now and remove emissions from the atmosphere using technological innovations like CDR at a later point of time to attain ‘net zero’. 

The problem with this is that they need to begin removing their emissions now as they have already consumed their share of the global carbon budget, or the total amount of carbon dioxide emissions that the globe can withstand to keep temperature rise below 2°C. A 2021 study in the Economic and Political Weekly arrived at a similar conclusion. 

However, global policy discussions tend to pay very little attention to the assumptions and flaws of those models. Neither do they consider the fact that 49% of the mitigation scenarios assessed in AR6 come from a single study. A majority of the models assessed in the IPCC reports are produced in the Global North, with assumptions that are suitable to the developed world, leading to the continuation of a specific development model. While the realities of the Global South find inadequate representation in those models.     

The illusion of CDR technologies

The AR6 reports mention that net zero emissions can be achieved by 2050 by adopting certain supply and demand strategies. On the supply side, it includes shifting to non-fossil fuel-based energy sources, while on the demand strategy it requires an increased use of CDR to reduce CO2 emissions.

If implemented well, these strategies might make it possible to achieve net zero emissions by 2050.

But the big assumption here is that technology to implement CDR on a large scale is available right now. This is not the case.

“On paper, multiple methods of CDR are available, many of which could be implemented on scale if resources and political priorities were in place. In practice, however, afforestation is perhaps the CDR option that is closest to actually being scaled, because we already have a very substantial forestry industry around the world. But it’s also the technology that most clearly comes with significant challenges if scaled,” explains Wim Carton, a specialist in negative emissions, and a senior lecturer at the Sustainability Centre, Lund University in Sweden. 

There is, for instance,  “a clear risk that most of the burden for afforestation would fall on the tropics, and therefore the Global South. That has historically been the pattern and it is also the assumption that is made in many [IPCC] models, both for biophysical and for economic reasons. Clearly this would lead to significant climate justice concerns—it could mean that industrialised countries outsource much of the responsibility for removals to the developing world,” adds Carton. 

A large-scale afforestation programme, if implemented, would involve planting trees on lands that have historically not been forests, resulting in a massive land use change. Furthermore, afforestation offers no guarantee that carbon will remain stored in perpetuity, especially as incidences of forest fires (and landslides) continue to increase in a warming planet.

This will have implications for food security, which again will have a greater impact on developing countries, as many of them still struggle to deliver sufficient food security. It will also impact water availability and global rainfall patterns. According to a 2022 study in Nature Geoscience, planting trees on a large scale has the potential to reduce water availability in the regions they are planted in and disrupt global rainfall patterns. Another method of CDR is carbon capture and storage (CCS), which, as the name suggests, involves capturing carbon and storing it such that it is removed from the atmosphere. However, CCS, too, does not look like a promising option. A 2022 study by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis  examined 55% of the world’s existing CCS programmes, and found “failed / underperforming projects considerably outnumbered successful experiences.” 

No equity in net zero targets

The gaping question of who will bear the cost of technological innovations for implementing CDR, too, remains unanswered.

The AR6 models consider only the cheapest ways of implementing CDR, but do not address the matter of who will pay for those technologies. Developed countries, too, have avoided making any commitments. Neither are they likely to face any pressure for taking the lead on afforestation, as their geographic locations do not make them a suitable candidate for undertaking large-scale tree plantations.

The issue is compounded by the fact that most emissions pathways modelling efforts originate in the developed world and pay little heed to incorporating parameters that would ensure equity. “The fact that most models originate in the Global North should not be a reason for there to be a lack of equity. After all, are equity and justice not universal concepts? These are also concepts that are central to the UNFCCC which the developed countries have accepted. But the exigency of their operationalisation is clearly not felt by academics in developed countries who work on these models. Equity is absent across the scenarios. Not only is there no historical responsibility in these scenarios, but inequalities are projected to continue far into the future. These are least cost models, i.e. they minimise global abatement costs, but pay no attention to the developmental needs of the poorest regions of the world,” explains Kanitkar.

The race to net zero by 2050 for all countries, without considering the full implications of CDR, could help developed countries evade their fair share of climate action. This is a concern that Bolivia, while speaking for the Like Minded Developing countries, raised in the Bonn climate meet as it felt the uniform imposition of net-zero targets lets developed countries get away with taking too little action.

While the ongoing conversation on achieving net-zero emission targets is an important one, the commitments will remain mere shots in the dark, unless there is an objectively fair and realistic plan for execution. 

Radhika Chatterjee is a researcher with Land Conflict Watch, an independent network  of researchers studying land conflicts, climate change and natural resource governance in India