Local & Green with Russ Vernon-Jones:Problems with net-zero by 2050

Thursday, January 13, 2022

Many nations, corporations, municipalities, and other entities are setting goals to be “net-zero by 2050,” that is, to have zero net greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2050.

The town of Amherst set such a goal in 2019. While these goals may have seemed admirable only a couple of years ago, it is now clear that in rich, developed countries such as the United States, they are inadequate and potentially quite problematic, as I describe below.

In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a report in which it emphasized that in order for humanity to keep global warming below 1.5°C it was necessary for the world to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 45% by 2030 and to “net-zero” by 2050.

The “net-zero” in this statement was an acknowledgement that no matter how vigorously we cut emissions, there will likely still be small amounts of emissions (mostly in some industrial and agricultural processes) that we can’t totally eliminate and these will have to be balanced by equivalent increases in carbon sequestration. This IPCC statement was accurate, but has been distorted and misused in multiple ways.

Ignoring the 2030 goal

First, the 2030 goal and the 2050 goal in the IPCC report are paired with each other and must be implemented together. Many of the current adoptions of the 2050 goal are ignoring, or failing to even come close to, the 2030 target. “Net-zero by 2050” is a recipe for disaster if we don’t first reduce emissions by 45% by 2030. Here’s why.

The real issue is that there is a finite amount of additional carbon (or “carbon equivalent”) emissions that humanity can put into the atmosphere without driving global warming beyond the critical 1.5°C limit. (That’s the total amount for all time, not an amount per year.) This is sometimes called our carbon budget.

In 2018 the IPCC reported that the world’s total remaining carbon budget was approximately 580 GtCO2. The IPCC indicated that the most realistic way to not exceed that amount of total emissions was to reduce emissions starting immediately, achieving a 45% reduction by 2030; and then get to net-zero emissions by 2050. Instead, most nations and corporations, including those that have claimed to be aiming for net-zero by 2050, are continuing unacceptably high emissions now, and delaying major reductions for sometime in the future (hoping that new technology will enable carbon to be removed rapidly from the atmosphere as we approach 2050).

Even if both paths end up at zero emissions in 2050, total emissions between now and then are very different under the two scenarios. The one with a 45% reduction by 2030 adds only the quantity of greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere equal to the gray area in the accompanying graph — exhausting, but not exceeding our carbon budget by 2050, keeping global temperature rise close to the 1.5°C target.

The “Current Policies-Delayed Cuts” trajectory that many nations and businesses seem to be following in practice, adds far more carbon to the atmosphere by 2050 — the gray area under the first line plus the black area — and will exceed the world’s total carbon budget long before we get to 2050. The result will be global warming well in excess of 1.5°C — possibly a 2.4°C global temperature rise — resulting in truly disastrous global climate change.

“Net-zero by 2050” only makes sense if it is combined with at least a 45% reduction by 2030. To its credit, Amherst has adopted goals of a 25% reduction by 2025, and 50% by 2030. We have not yet committed to taking all the steps that will be required to meet those goals. (The Amherst 50% reduction by 2030 is equivalent to the IPCC 45% because the Amherst reduction is from 2016 levels, while the IPCC reduction is from 2010 levels.)

Equity issues

However, even if Amherst were to meet the goals we’ve set for 2025, 2030 and 2050, we would still be failing to meet basic standards of equity. The IPCC 2018 report called for global emissions to meet the 2030 and 2050 goals, but did not suggest that the way to get there was for each nation to view those global goals as national goals.

The United States, a rich developed country, used up and exceeded its fair share of the global carbon budget many years ago. For the U.S. to continue to use even more of the remaining global carbon budget is unfair.

Poor developing nations have neither used their share, nor gotten rich by burning fossil fuels. The small remaining carbon budget should be available to them as needed to meet the needs of their people while moving as rapidly as possible to sustainable economies.

The U.S. should be ending all use of fossil fuels as rapidly as is possible, long before 2050. A poor, less-developed country such as India, currently very dependent upon fossil fuels for power, will need more time to transition to non-polluting energy sources, than a country with all the resources of the U.S.

Leading up to the COP26 conference, 24 developing nations (including India, Indonesia, Egypt China, Vietnam, etc.) issued a statement calling the idea of “net-zero by 2050” targets for developed countries “anti-equity and against climate justice.” They noted the importance of “ensuring sustainable development and poverty eradication in developing countries” while the world solves the climate crisis. They called on rich nations to address their historical responsibility for causing climate change by decarbonizing their economies “in this decade“ — in other words to aim for net zero by 2030.

Although zero emissions by 2030 is probably not within Amherst’s reach without more support from the federal government than we are likely to get, we in Amherst, should at least be aiming to reach zero emissions well before 2050.

Russ Vernon-Jones lives in Amherst and was principal of Fort River School 1990-2008. He was a member of the Amherst Community Safety Working Group and is on the Steering Committee of Climate Action Now-Western Massachusetts. He blogs regularly on climate justice at www.russvernonjones.org.