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Insights into Editorial: Deconstructing declarations of carbon-neutrality




At the latest count by the non-profit Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU), at the beginning of April, 32 countries had declared, in some documented form, their proposed intention to achieve carbon neutral status by mid-century or thereabouts.

Of these, only eight have any firm status, the rest being in the form of proposed legislation or mentions in policy documents.

Since some months ago, the UN Secretary General has taken the lead in sparking off an international chorus, led by global civil society organisations based in the developed countries and encouraged by their governments, that is urging all countries, especially India, to make explicit declarations.



virtual Climate Leaders’ Summit convened by US President Joe Biden on April 22-23 where Prime Minister Narendra Modi is one of the invitees.

In its bid to reclaim the global climate leadership, the US is widely expected to commit itself to a net-zero emission target for 2050 at the summit. Several other countries, including the UK and France, have already enacted laws promising to achieve a net-zero emission scenario by the middle of the century. China has promised to go net-zero by 2060.


Net zero: why is it necessary?

  1. A number of countries, including the UK, have made commitments to move to a net zero emissions economy.
  2. This is in response to climate science showing that in order to halt climate change, carbon emissions have to stop reducing them is not sufficient.
  3. Net zero’ means that any emissions are balanced by absorbing an equivalent amount from the atmosphere.
  4. Net-zero is a state in which a country’s emissions are compensated by absorption and removal of greenhouse gases from the atmospher
  5. Absorption of the emissions can be increased by creating more carbon sinks such as forests, while removal of gases from the atmosphere requires futuristic technologies such as carbon capture and storage.
  6. It is being argued that global carbon neutrality by 2050 is the only way to achieve the Paris Agreement target of keeping the planet’s temperature from rising beyond 2°C compared to pre-industrial times.
  7. In order to meet the 5°C global warming target in the Paris Agreement, global carbon emissions should reach net zero around mid-century.
  8. For developed nations such as the UK, the date may need to be earlier. Many have already set such dates.


Temperature goals according to Paris Agreement:

The impetus for such declarations arises from Article 4.1 of the Paris Agreement that states that

“In order to achieve the long-term temperature goal set out in Article 2, Parties aim to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible, recognizing that peaking will take longer for developing country Parties, and to undertake rapid reductions thereafter in accordance with best available science, so as to achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century, on the basis of equity, and in the context of sustainable development and efforts to eradicate poverty”.

The temperature goal referred to is the much better known declaration of intent of the Paris Agreement, of limiting temperature rise to well below 2°C and further pursuing efforts to restrict it to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.


Current pledges in Paris Agreement fall short:

  1. The hard scientific reality is that such a three-way compatibility between temperature goals, carbon neutrality, and equity is not only not guaranteed, but cannot be achieved for the 1.5°C temperature goal at all. And even for the 2°C goal, the current pledges are highly inadequate.
  2. This harsh conclusion follows from straightforward scientific considerations, based on the global carbon budget, which indicates the limits on global cumulative emissions, from the pre-industrial era to the time when net emissions cease, that correspond to definite levels of global temperature
  3. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5° warming, what remains of this global carbon budget from 2018 onwards, for a 50% probability of restricting temperature rise to less than 1.5°C, is 480 Giga-tonnes (billion tonnes) of carbon dioxide equivalent.


Emissions in the West:

  1. The hollowness of nation-level carbon neutrality declarations by developed countries is brought out more starkly when we consider the details, as in the case of the United States and the European Union.
  2. Emissions in the U.S. peaked in 2005 and have declined at an average rate of 1.1% from then till 2017, with a maximum annual reduction of 6.3% in 2009, at the height of a recession.
  3. Even if it did reach net-zero by 2050 at a steady linear rate of reduction, which is unprecedented, its cumulative emissions between 2018 and 2050 would be 106 GtCO2, which is 22% of the total remaining carbon budget for the whole world so high, that unless others reduced emissions at even faster rates, the world would most certainly cross 1.5°C warming.
  4. Regrettably, a section of the climate policy modelling literature has promoted the illusion that this three-way compatibility is feasible through speculative “negative emissions”, ostensibly through dramatic expansion of carbon capture, primarily by the biosphere.
  5. They have also been promoting the other illusion that not resorting to any serious emissions increase at all is the means to guarantee the successful development of the Third World.


According to the author, India has no carbon debt:

India clearly should not join this game of carbon neutrality declarations, for a number of reasons.

For one, India has to stay focused on development both as its immediate need as well as its aspirational goal.

  1. While sustainability is desirable, the question of how low India’s future low-carbon development can be is highly uncertain.
  2. India’s current low carbon footprint is a consequence of the utter poverty and deprivation of a majority of its population, and not by virtue of sustainability.

Second, India does not owe a carbon debt to the world.

  1. India’s emissions (non-LULUCF) are no more than 3.5% of global cumulative emissions prior to 1990 and about 5% since till 2018.
  2. Nor are India’s current annual emissions such as to seriously dent the emissions gap between what the world needs and the current level of mitigation effort, even as India’s mitigation efforts are quite compatible with a 2°C target.
  3. Any self-sacrificial declaration of carbon neutrality today in the current international scenario would be a wasted gesture reducing the burden of the developed world and transferring it to the backs of the Indian people.

India’s twin burden of low-carbon development and adaptation to climate impacts, is onerous and no doubt requires serious, concerted action.

India’s approach to eventual net-zero emissions is contingent on deep first world emissions reductions and an adequate and unambiguous global carbon budget.

Meanwhile, India must reject any attempt to restrict its options and be led into a low-development trap, based on pseudo-scientific narratives.



It is evident that the balance of emissions and removal of greenhouse gases is not sought on a country-wise basis but for the world as a whole.

Though both developed country governments and civil society outfits commonly state this as an individual commitment by all countries, the text of the Paris Agreement clearly indicates, based on considerations of equity and differentiation, that this is a global goal.