Net zero carbon emissions has become a fashionable rallying cry over recent weeks, with governments, companies, and celebrities vowing to reach the goal by the middle of the century.
Israel joined the club on Thursday, in the run-up to the COP26 United Nations Climate Conference, kicking off in Scotland on Sunday. Until then, the country had committed to transition to a low carbon economy.
So what does net zero mean?
Carbon dioxide is one of the key gases that lead to global warming and the climate crisis, which is developing in the form of increased storms, droughts, floods, fires, and the extinction of many species.
Achieving net zero carbon emissions means that the carbon — and other global warming gases such as methane and nitrous oxide — emitted from burning fossil fuels is balanced by the carbon removed from the atmosphere and stored.
Critical to achieving this balance is quickly replacing the use of fossil fuels with renewable energy sources.
But despite many pledges and efforts by governments to tackle the causes of global warming, carbon dioxide (CO₂) emissions from energy and industry have increased by 60% since the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change was signed in 1992. This year, emissions are expected to rise by 4%, having decreased last year during the COVID pandemic.
Both the UN and the International Energy Agency have made clear that the climate pledges made by governments to date, even if fully met, will fall well short of what is required to bring global energy-related CO₂ and other emissions to net zero by 2050 and give the world a chance of limiting the global temperature rise of 1.5C°.
Israel’s government, for its part, says it is committed to the transition to renewable energy, mainly from the sun. Several documents have been produced outlining the steps that need to be taken to cut emissions. But no target has been set yet for renewable energy by 2050 — a concrete goal to which everyone could work. Israel even failed to reach its own modest goal of 10 percent renewables by the end of last year, reaching just 6%.
How is it measured?
Another question is how one counts carbon emissions. To date, there are no international standards.
The US oil giant Chevron, for example, which operates Israel’s two national gas fields Tamar and Leviathan, has taken the vow of “net zero operational emissions” by 2050. Reuters reported that it will cut internal emissions generated as part of its operations, as well as indirect emissions, such as those from power generation. But it will not count greenhouse gases from all the fuel products it sells.
The question of achieving and measuring carbon removal and storage is even muddier.
The oceans, forests, mangroves, soils and wetlands such as peat bogs have been absorbing carbon dioxide for millennia as part of the planet’s delicate dance to keep the cycles of gases in balance for the sake of life on Earth.
Tree planting is by far the cheapest way to remove CO₂ from the atmosphere and many nations are touting massive tree planting projects, among them China — the world’s biggest emitter — which has already planted billions of trees. This forms part of China’s plan to reach peak emissions before 2030 on the way to being carbon neutral by 2060.
But the path to evaluating the amount of carbon dioxide that trees absorb and store in their wood as part of the process of photosynthesis (which produces energy) is littered with obstacles.
Trees take a long time to grow and they absorb different amount of CO₂ as they do so. What if they are chopped down at some point, or destroyed in a wildfire, often itself the result of global warming? Which trees should be planted? Will they survive as the climate changes? In addition, trees are not permanent. When they die, some of that carbon is released.
And according to the World Wildlife Fund, currently, forests equivalent to 27 football fields are disappearing every minute.
Trees don’t provide the whole answer, anyway. According to research published by The Guardian in 2019, 11 percent of all land, equivalent to the size of the US and China combined, and excluding all urban areas and fields used to grow crops (but including grazing land, where some trees could be planted) were ripe for conversion into forests. Doing so, the research suggested, could remove just under one-third of all the emissions from human activities that remain in the atmosphere. And that was as long as no more carbon was emitted.
Where will carbon be stored?
Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is the real dream of countries and companies hoping that large-scale tech deployment will allow fossil fuel emissions to continue. But technologies, for example, to inject carbon back into the belly of Earth’s rocky lithosphere are at a very early stage and are expensive and their future viability at scale remains unclear. The idea of carbon storage in the oceans has been scrapped for fear of speeding up the process of seawater acidification.
Some critics fear that the vow to reach net zero by 2050 is being used in some quarters to delay action and continue emissions as usual in the hope that technology will come to the rescue in time to store massive amounts of carbon from the atmosphere.
The Saudis, for example, committed to reach net zero by 2060 and invest billions of dollars in technology but will finance it all by continuing to produce oil for decades to come. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison pledged to reach carbon neutrality by 2050 and invest in carbon capturing technology, but all while continuing to produce and sell coal.
In May, the IEA released a roadmap for moving to net zero, a central plank of which was to immediately stop developing new oil and gas fields beyond those already approved.
According to a Reuters analysis of pledges made by several Middle East oil producers, Saudi Arabia’s energy minister dismissed the plan as something from “la la land.”
Earlier this month, the BBC reported seeing leaked documents showing that Saudi Arabia, Japan and Australia were among countries asking the UN to play down the importance of moving away from fossil fuels.
A total of 49 countries plus the European Union have pledged a net zero target. This covers more than half of global domestic greenhouse gas emissions, more than half of global GDP and a third of the global population.
The G20 on Sunday committed to reach carbon neutrality, but declined to set a specific date and did not introduce plans to phase out carbon domestically.
And according to a Tuesday United Nations report, many country targets for emission reductions push off any real action until after 2030, and while 12 G20 members have pledged a net zero target, “ambiguity still surrounds the means of reaching that goal.”
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