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Net-zero emission goals are largely unattainable

Policymakers have failed to recognise the role of climate, forest and biodiversity in ensuring the welfare of people through sustainable development.

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Krishna Raj
Prof, Institute for Social and Economic Change, Bengaluru

EVEN as many countries worldwide are grappling with climate change-induced natural disasters, the UN Production Gap Report, 2023, has red-flagged the dangers lying ahead. The report observes that the collective climate action plans to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement to phase out fossil fuels before 2050 and limit the global average temperature rise to 1.5°C by the end of 2100 are largely inadequate. This is obvious as the trajectory of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, led by fossil fuel production, is on the upswing despite the governments’ efforts to fulfil commitments to achieve net-zero emissions. According to the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), the global emissions are projected to fall by just 2 per cent by 2030. The Global Stocktake Report of the UN observes that the goal of cutting down GHG emissions by 43 per cent by 2030, compared to the 2019 levels, is unachievable. It means that the world will be battered by more frequent and severe heatwaves, droughts, floods, wildfires, cyclones, etc.

The global economy is intensely driven by fossil fuel energy sources such as coal, gas and oil. However, fossil fuels are also responsible for the increase in the world’s GDP since the Industrial Revolution. Reversing the world’s energy landscape with green energy and maintaining the expansion of the global economy are tasks of Himalayan proportions. The Russia-Ukraine war has exacerbated the energy crisis due to short supply and increasing oil prices as Russia continues to dominate global export of fossil fuels. Governments’ supply-side measures for the transition to clean energy are on hold and oil companies are trying to extract more profit amid the climate crisis. Countries have resorted to excessive production and dependence on fossil fuels despite their governmental commitments under the Paris Agreement. The policy goals towards energy and climate security continue to contradict each other and economic growth led by production continues to heavily rely on coal, oil and gas. Government plans and projections for carbon capture, storage and removal are in limbo, while the global production gap of fossil fuels remains unaltered. The euphoria of pledging to achieve net-zero emissions continues amid uncertainty and missed targets as “the world’s governments still plan to produce more than double the amount of fossil fuels in 2030”. Countries that have pledged to achieve net-zero emissions have plans to increase production of coal by 460 per cent, oil by 29 per cent and gas by 82 per cent by 2030. This production trend will endanger the world by leading to an increase in the average temperature by 1.5°C by 2040.

The production gap for fossil fuels, including coal, oil and gas, varies among the signatory countries that have pledged to achieve net-zero emissions. In 2030, relative to 2021, India, Russia, Indonesia, Colombia and Australia are projected to produce coal equivalent to 10.7, 3.2, 2.5, 1.7, and 0.2 exajoules, respectively. In contrast, China and the US are expected to decrease coal production by 5.3 and 5.1 exajoules. However, most of the high- and low-income countries have planned to increase oil and gas production. The production gap to achieve consistent pathways to 1.5°C by 2040 is 1,200 per cent for coal, 77 per cent for oil and 150 per cent for gas.

These findings pose a great challenge for world leaders who are going to meet at the COP28 climate conference beginning in Dubai next week. The clash of interests — energy security versus climate security — will continue as usual. With leaders prioritising economic growth for their countries, climate commitments are just a political-economic agenda, which is most probably unattainable. Practically speaking, the world cannot realise net-zero emissions only through green energy as it takes enormous time, technology and cost to replace fossil fuels. Afforestation can be an effective way to fight climate change, along with other mitigating measures. Currently, renewable energy is the only alternative to fossil fuels, and a complete replacement is not imminent unless green hydrogen becomes a cost-effective and handy backstop technology.

The global energy demand is steadily increasing with industrial growth and urbanisation. The electric vehicle policy seems to shift air pollution from cities to coal-based thermal power stations. While the overall net effect on pollution is zero, it introduces enormous pollution during the recycling of used batteries. Forests can effectively remove carbon dioxide already stored in the atmosphere, apart from offering a multitude of ecosystem services. The UN pushes for a green and circular economy, emphasising sustainable development and the achievement of Sustainable Development Goals. However, institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and the World Trade Organisation tend to prioritise strong economic growth under capitalism. The policies of these multilateral organisations commonly diverge rather than converge in achieving net-zero emissions. A cautionary note was sounded by the Club of Rome’s The Limits to Growth: “A finite world of finite resources will not support indefinite growth in the extraction of those resources.” However, policymakers and markets have failed to recognise the role of climate, forest and biodiversity in ensuring the welfare of people through sustainable development. Capitalism has freed millions of people from poverty but created huge income inequality and contributed to climate change. It should be made to work in public interest, as stated by Anne Case and Angus Deaton in their book Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism. The World Bank and the IMF should channel their policies towards realising a green economy, supported by substantial green climate funds for massive afforestation programmes worldwide, in addition to efforts to prevent high rates of deforestation. The World Bank’s investments in big infrastructure projects should also be linked to countries’ green initiatives. COP28 needs to be mandated to create sovereign green funds for afforestation and climate mitigation.

#Climate change #Environment

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