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There’s a Right Path and a Wrong Path to Net-Zero. Which One Are We On?

There’s a Right Path and a Wrong Path to Net-Zero. Which One Are We On?

A nickel processing plant in Nouméa, New Caledonia. Nickel is an important component of solar panels. Photo: Jeremy Bezanger/Unsplash

  • The world, and India, is talking about going carbon neutral. Last month, India got its first ‘carbon neutral’ panchayat.
  • Being carbon-neutral means balancing one’s activities such that one’s net contribution to atmospheric carbon is zero.
  • But it’s a contested concept, with critics questioning whether it only provides a license to emit.
  • Even others are concerned about achieving carbon neutrality through negative externalities.

Kochi: On April 24, Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated a 500-kW solar power plant in Palli village, Jammu & Kashmir. Being fully powered by solar energy made this India’s first carbon-neutral panchayat, Modi announced.

On May 11, the Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket tournament also reported its first “carbon neutral” match. One of the teams, Rajasthan Royals, has tied up with a private company to offset the carbon footprint of the match by planting 17,000 trees.

The city of Mumbai hopes to become carbon neutral by 2050, according to its first-ever Climate Action Plan.

The Union civil aviation minister tweeted on May 3 that India is looking to make its airports carbon neutral in the near future.

Going “carbon neutral” is clearly a very popular trend. But can an airport, a village or cricket match really be carbon-neutral?

Being carbon neutral

Going carbon-neutral – a.k.a. net-zero – is the process of offsetting carbon emissions. You balance the amount of carbon dioxide your activities produce by doing things that trap carbon, so that in the end your activities have not increased the amount of carbon in the atmosphere.

For example, air travel is an unavoidable activity today but it has a huge carbon footprint. The aviation industry alone accounts for 2.5% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions. It’s bad if you’re a frequent-flyer – and worse if you’re a celebrity. Bill Gates and Paris Hilton together produce 10,000-times more carbon from flying than the average person, one scientist found when he dug up their travel histories.

Carbon neutrality offers a way out. If you emit some carbon, you could plant a tree that would absorb that carbon into its biomass, and keep it from contributing to climate change.

Planting trees is how the Rajasthan Royals aimed to reduce the carbon footprint of their May 11 match against the Delhi Capitals. A single IPL cricket match emits around 10,000 tonnes-equivalent of carbon dioxide. To offset emissions from this match alone, the team has reportedly tied up with a private energy management and automation company to plant 17,000 trees over the next six months.

Today, the world accepts afforestation as a crucial way to mitigate the impact of climate change. According to a recent UN climate report, such methods of carbon dioxide removal are the only way that the world will achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions.

Many countries have made ambitious pledges to achieve net-zero. Last year, at the COP26 climate talks in Glasgow, Prime Minister Modi promised that India would achieve net-zero by 2070. This includes investing in renewable energy – and this is why the solar-powered village of Palli is a matter of celebration.

Doing it right

But the success of going carbon-neutral depends on understanding the nuanced nature of our solutions. “There are clear risks of getting net-zero wrong,” scientists from the UK wrote in a December 2021 study. But if it is “interpreted right and governed well, net-zero can be an effective frame of reference for climate action.”

For example, we need to plant more trees – but we can’t plant them in deserts, as Saudi Arabia plans to do, or in grasslands, which India is already doing. This is because if trees are planted in a habitat that is not used to the relevant species, the ecosystem will degrade and more carbon will be released.

Aside from doing carbon neutrality right, many experts have questioned the premise itself. One team of climate scientists wrote in April 2021 that a “burn now, pay later” approach is encouraging consumption and increasing carbon emissions. Instead, they wrote that we need urgent action to reduce consumption.

Another issue is that some countries’ net-zero targets involve purchasing carbon credits. If country A can emit some amount of carbon but doesn’t need to, then country B can buy country A’s carbon credits as a licence to emit. This however defeats the purpose of reducing emissions altogether, by allowing countries to do the bare minimum.

In similar vein, solar power plants provide ‘green’ power – but they also occupy land (sometimes agricultural), displace people, take away local jobs, require trees to be cut, need metals and minerals to be mined in often ‘dirty’ mining operations, and have them transported across thousands of kilometres by air and sea. All these activities are also bad for the environment, and many of their associated emissions happen in faraway geographies.

This is also why one small village becoming solar-powered means little more than that it is possible to achieve on a small scale. But unless it is scaled up to the entire district, without harming people’s lives and livelihoods and without significantly driving up the costs of living, it will not be a success story. After that, it will have to be scaled up to the state, and then to the country itself.

The same thing goes for the growing popularity of electric vehicles (EVs) in Indian cities. Most of India’s power continues to come from coal and EVs increase power consumption. As a result, EVs only shift pollution from within the city to outside, to the power plants, which are often located near towns or villages and whose environments are further degraded.

Taken together, it is important that the way we achieve carbon neutrality needs to be fair and just – and we need new laws to ensure that this is so.

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