The reasons are as stark as climate change today. Even all net zero pledges are not really net zero. By 2050 the emissions would fall at the most by 70-79 per cent as has been inferred by UNFCCC from the pledges of 74 countries that have shared detailed information on targets for up to and beyond 2050. About half of net zero pledges are yet to elaborate on the hows and the whens of their net zero targets. Two-thirds of net-zero targets by companies don’t cover Scope 3 emissions emanating from their products. Most pledges are not even for neutralising all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
Net-zero pledges about removing as much CO2 as emitted so far made on behalf of countries, industries and companies contributing 90 percent of the global GDP have in most cases have set a distant target year of 2050. Many of them have not detailed interim targets. About 90% of the pledges are voluntary. Only countries like Denmark, France, Germany, New Zealand, Sweden and the UK have made legally binding commitments.
The result is that emissions would rise 13.7 per cent and temperature by 1.5°C by 2030. It is in sharp contrast to the need to reduce emissions by about half (45 per cent) from 2010 levels by 2030 to achieve net zero, points out the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in its ‘NDC Synthesis Report’ after analysing cumulative Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) of 193 countries.
It is noteworthy that the humankind has already emitted 2,400 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) since the mid-1800s. Business as usual scenario is estimated to lead to emission of another 460 billion tonnes of CO2 by early 2030, according to ‘The Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis’ report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
The United Nations (UN) is not oblivious of the situation and has announced the setting up of a group of experts to lay down clear standards to measure and analyse net-zero commitments from non-state actors. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres made the announcement at the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, also known as COP26 Summit.
What is a cause for more concern is that the distant 2050 dateline seems to have compromised the efforts to focus realistically on need-based short-term emission reduction by 2030 as should be the first priority. The focus is more on present offsets and future technological breakthroughs.
Both governments and companies are also vague about their plans on carbon offsetting activities like tree plantation or CO2 capture and storage. It applies to targets of 91 per cent of countries and 48 per cent of companies, according to Net Zero Tracker (NZT), a global initiative committed to quantitative and qualitative analyses of global net zero commitments made by countries and companies.
In any case, infinite benefits of tree plantation are debatable. Offsetting through plantation is not a viable long-term solution. It is not possible to have trees absorbing all the CO2. The carbon sinking ability of tropical forests is already nearing its saturation point due to rising temperatures. In fact, such forests can prove to be counterproductive and become heat taps instead of heat traps. New plantation is also not useful for reducing emissions today because trees need about 20 years to grow so as to effectively absorb carbon.
CO2 capture and storage technology is still work in progress and expensive. Climate technology breakthroughs that are replicable at scale are a matter of future.
For the immediate and distant future, the net zero pledges would be best served by having process timelines with clear commitments for 2030, which is the most important year going forward. The interim target can be sought to be achieved on the back of elimination of the use of fossil fuels, uptake in the use of renewables and reduction in carbon intensity, as was also underlined by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the COP26 Summit in Glasgow. Reducing emissions of GHGs to the maximum possible using clean technology, undertaking plantation judiciously and burying balance emissions through affordable carbon capture and storage technologies would increase the chances of reaching net zero targets.