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What is Net Zero? Which Countries Aim to Go Net Zero by 2050? What are India's Reservations?

Sep 21, 2021 1:57 PM 5 min read

During his recent visit to India, John Kerry, the US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, tried again to nudge New Delhi to commit to "net zero" emissions and set a target for achieving the same. However, India has maintained its stance against such a move.

Looking at the global movement towards net zero, India’s doggedness may seem like an outlier. After all, more than 130 countries have proposed - or are considering - a net zero target. As are nearly 1,400 companies (including Dell, PepsiCo, Google, Facebook and Apple) and even pop artists like Billie Eilish and Massive Attack.

What explains India’s intransigence, then?

Firstly, What is Net Zero?

Net zero emissions envision a future where an entity or country removes the same amount of greenhouse gases (GHGs) it emits. Basically, the emissions it releases into the environment are balanced by removing the same amount of pollutants from the environment. Ergo, “net” zero.

One point to note is that “net zero” is often used to refer to CO2 emissions alone, which is when it is called carbon neutrality. However, true net zero involves all GHGs (methane, chlorofluorocarbons, nitrous oxide etc.), and this goal is much more difficult to achieve than carbon neutrality.

Basically, the typical trajectory would be: set energy transition targets >> reach peak carbon >> net zero CO2 >> net zero GHG >> gross zero GHG.

Another point to keep in mind is that net zero is unlike gross zero, which means no emissions at all. This means that a country can theoretically achieve its net zero targets even while continuing to maintain high emission levels - or even increase them - simply by building more infrastructure to remove the same amount of emissions from the atmosphere.


The Road to Net Zero

The movement towards net zero can be traced back to the 2015 Paris Agreement, Article 4.1 of which highlights the need to “to achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century”. The road to net zero was fashioned out of the realisation that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to cut emissions from critical industries like aviation and manufacturing ASAP. This remains especially true for countries like India and China.

Over the past few years, this goal has received increased attention thanks to growing environmental activism, the rising number of extreme weather events, and the IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C (link).


What is Carbon Offsetting?

Now, to achieve net zero, a country/company can either (1) reduce overall emissions, especially of CO2, or (2) balance its emissions with an equal amount of GHG offsetting.

The first option is easy to understand. Abandon fossil fuels, invest in clean and low-carbon energy sources, and build a green economy. It’s a broad, macroeconomic shift to a brand new energy future.

Option #2 is an indirect way to achieve carbon neutrality. And it is a diverse field. The more “conventional” carbon offsets involve planting trees, funding environment non-profits, participating in emissions trading schemes etc.

However, the new age tech solutions to carbon offsetting are a relatively new science - and a largely untested one at that. Officially, they are known as carbon capture, use and storage (CCUS) technology. This broadly involves removing CO2 from the atmosphere, pumping it underground, and storing it there. Carbon capture tech is an entire field of study on its own - click here to read more on this topic.


Net Zero Targets Around the World

At least 137 countries have committed to set a target for reaching carbon neutrality. 73% of global emissions are currently covered by such targets.

Most countries have set a target for 2050. Some have not given a set date, like Australia and Singapore. Some have targets beyond the middle of the century, such as China, the world’s largest emitter, which aims to go net zero by 2060.

Moreover, the seriousness of goal-setting varies widely. Some, like Denmark, France and Sweden, have enshrined their goals into law. Others, like Australia, Japan and the US, have put forth their aspirations in an official government policy document (not set in stone). Most of the remaining pledges are either proposed or “under discussion”.

FYI: Uruguay’s 2030 target is the earliest one. But the earliest commitment enshrined into law is Sweden’s 2045 target.

FYI #2: As of today, Bhutan and Suriname are the only two countries to have hit carbon neutrality and even gone carbon negative i.e., they are now removing more CO2 than they are emitting.


India and Net Zero

India has long held reservations about publicly committing to a net zero target. Much of these stem from economic necessity. The country's population is slated for sustained growth in the near-term which, alongside a growing economy, will demand increased emissions to sustain growth and lift millions out of poverty (both of which are non-negotiable goals).

While setting net zero targets is no doubt important, New Delhi’s arguments are valid as well. India is a heavily coal-reliant economy. CCUS tech is still nascent and expensive. The transition to green energy, while being embraced by the country, will take time and money.

And an oft-repeated point by GoI is that India is nonetheless committed to climate action.

  1. It plans to reduce the emissions intensity of GDP by 33-35% by 2030 (from 2005-levels).
  2. India is the only OECD country on track to meeting its 2015 Paris climate commitments i.e. its policies, as of 2020-end, were “<2°C compatible”. Other countries’ progress was determined to be varying levels of “insufficient”.
  3. The country has a lofty target of building 450 GW of renewable energy capacity by 2030 (although whether this reflects the facts on the ground is another story).

Moreover, setting targets is one thing; achieving them is a different ball game altogether. Take the Kyoto Protocol - the largest climate action architecture pre-2015. No major country achieved those emission-cutting targets; some openly walked out of the deal without any consequences. And no nation delivered on the 2020 Paris promises. The 2050 net zero targets may go the same way.


The Other Side of the Coin

Besides, carbon offsetting itself has its share of criticisms. Countries may be building castles in the air by setting ambitious neutrality goals by basing their plans on technology that is not tested for scale - or even available - yet. Even the conventional methods comprise the bare minimum. How many trees can you plant before you finally pull the plug on the fossil fuel industry? There isn’t enough land - and carbon sinks can leak too, by the way.

FYI: A study by the Stockholm Environment Institute found that global emissions could have been reduced by 600 million tonnes if countries had resorted to cutting emissions rather than buying offsets.

Critics also point out that committing to net zero goals may absolve polluters of their near-term responsibilities. Think about it - the spectre of an oil conglomerate like Total saying it will build a forest in central Africa while continuing to extract fossil fuels elsewhere is an objectively unsettling one. It’s not a solution: it’s a delaying tactic and a cop-out. No wonder, then, that oil companies love gushing about their net zero targets.

To quote the climatologist James Hansen, carbon offsets are “modern-day indulgences, sold to an increasingly carbon-conscious public to absolve their climate sins".

Call it greenwashing.


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