The year 2021 promises to be a charged year for climate politics. The Biden administration has returned the US to the Paris Agreement, a new cycle of the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Assessment Reports are forthcoming, and a significant UN Climate Change conference – COP 26 – is slated for Glasgow at the end of the year.
The UN Secretary General, among others, has firmly got behind an effort to build a virtuous cycle of upwardly revised Nationally Determined Contributions from countries. Increasingly, the benchmark of credibility for country contributions is whether they include a “net-zero” target. As an important player in global climate politics and a highly vulnerable country should India, then, also consider a net-zero target?
What are net-zero targets and how prevalent are they? Net zero targets commit a country to reducing its annual emissions – carbon or all greenhouse gases – to zero by a given date, or to ensuring that any residual emissions are compensated by equivalent negative emissions, through carbon dioxide removal or other such technologies.
According to the 2020 UN Environment Programme Emissions Gap Report, 126 countries have net-zero targets covering 51% of global greenhouse gas emissions. If US President Joe Biden announces one for the US, this proportion will rise to 63%. Among the major economies, France and the UK have legally committed to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, Japan, Korea, Canada, South Africa all have statements of intent (variously framed) for 2050 targets in either greenhouse gas emissions or carbon terms and China has announced a 2060 carbon neutrality target.
According to Climate Action Tracker, if countries implemented these net zero targets, it could limit warming to 2.1 degrees C, down from 2.6 degrees C based on current pledges made as part of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s Paris agreement in 2016.
The global case for net zero targets is straightforward and, in many ways, compelling. For most countries, net zero targets by mid-century translate to an enhancement over their previous Nationally Determined Contributions targets. As per the IPCC 1.5 report, if such targets were the norm, it would increase the chance of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees. By signalling that net emissions have to not just decrease, but actually go to zero, they may spur technological innovation.
Net zero targets also provides ease of communication. They are a single, seemingly intuitive focal point for global action and serves to benchmark what counts as ambitious action. This is not a trivial political gain. Net zero has a reassuring solidity and tangibility as compared to the bewildering blend of base years, absolute emission targets, intensity targets, reductions below business-as-usual trends and so on of current targets.
They are also far easier to plug into scenario models – the grammar of climate politics – than fiddling around with complicated target formulations, and particularly intensity based targets, the emission effects of which depend on GDP. Finally, net-zero targets may provide policy guidance: by back-casting scenarios from a future net-zero year, policymakers can gain rule out certain trajectories and technology decisions – such as expansion of coal power plants – that would put these targets out of reach.
Will the seeming simplicity of the net-zero approach translate to actual emission reductions at the required scale on the ground? There are three reasons why the answer is not straightforward. First, implementing net-zero targets implies the existence of national institutional mechanisms that can translate the implications of net-zero emissions decades in the future to actions in the present, devise policies to ensure sectoral decisions are aligned, and manage the politics of the resultant winners and losers. This is not a small ask. Ongoing analysis on climate institutions suggests few countries have developed climate institutions adequate to the task.
In some countries, absent concrete interim targets, net-zero targets may even work to deflect and blunt political attention to immediate action. Second, and closely related, following through such a vision of climate policy-making implies national political agreement on a mitigation-centric construct such as net-zero emissions. In practice, countries are drawing on a variety of emergent narratives that require balancing multiple objectives, such as a co-benefit narrative in India, a jobs and just-transition narrative in South Africa, and, to some extent, variants of a green new deal in the US and EU.
A third complication is the implications of the word “net” in net-zero: will making “negative emission technologies” explicitly part of the target distract attention from the primary task needed to address climate change, which is emissions reductions?
Turning to India’s calculus when considering net-zero targets, a net-zero by mid-century pledge may complicate and even derail a carefully built momentum toward low-carbon focused development actions in India. It may disturb a fragile national political consensus around a co-benefits led and development-centric approach to emissions reductions, which has enabled substantial strides toward a clean energy transition. This formulation is consistent with the history of Indian climate politics, which has been dominated by climate equity based on “common but differentiated responsibility”.
A net-zero formulation, with its mitigation emphasis, may not be so.
Moreover, India’s climate institutional structure, while thin, is designed to opportunistically find linkages between development and low-carbon outcomes.
This is a useful role in a rapidly changing economy, as early action helps avoid lock-in to a high-carbon future, which has allowed India to make meaningful contributions to mitigation. A net-zero target would require building an explicitly mitigation-focused institutional architecture, an uphill task given current Indian climate politics.
Even if this is accomplished, gaining sufficient understanding and agreement over what net-zero concretely means for India’s development choices will likely be a challenge. At the moment, few studies have examined net-zero trajectories for India, and, among them, the International Energy Agency’s India Energy Outlook projects that under its most ambitious “Sustainable Development Scenario” India may reach net-zero in the mid-2060s. There is a risk that debates over whether net-zero approaches are consistent with India’s development needs may damp action.
Undermining existing approach
In brief, the current forward-looking opportunity framing of low-carbon development may actually yield a greater Indian contribution to global mitigation than a back-casting based choice of alternative futures driven by a net-zero target. While an Indian net-zero announcement may add to global momentum, it also risks being a hollow pandering to global pressures at best, and undermine the existing approach at worst.
What, then, should India do? Because more ambitious and effective global action on climate mitigation is strongly in India’s interest, it would help if India added to the momentum for a virtuous cycle at this delicate time in global climate politics. But, for the reasons above, the path to doing so may not lie in uncritically joining the net-zero bandwagon.
Instead, India could usefully advocate broadening of what counts as desirable climate action to include not just ambition but also implementation. To do so, India could advocate a portfolio approach, as part of which each country puts together: strengthened climate institutions to bridge targets and outcomes; tangible sectoral transition measures; mid-term targets (in five year increments); and long-term targets such as, but not limited to, net-zero targets.
Different countries will emphasize different aspects of this portfolio. Where there is broad political support for mitigation, such as in some industrialised countries, net-zero targets are extremely welcome, but ideally these should be backed by robust institutions that can raise the probability of implementation. Rapidly growing and changing countries like India should focus on avoiding emissions by pivoting key sectors to a low-carbon future, with climate institutions and laws designed to do so.
Over time, ideally, this will help build a national consensus on enhanced mitigation and lay the political and institutional conditions for credible rather than token future net-zero pledges. In the build-up to the Glasgow conference, India’s Nationally Determined Contribution should certainly include a more ambitious long-term target but, most critically, should demonstrate seriousness of intent in key emitting sectors and strengthen implementing institutions.
Net-zero targets are attractive because of their simplicity. They may allow us to better evaluate at a glance what countries say they will do. But, if we actually want to maximise what countries actually do, we may have to forego the simplicity of net-zero pledges and allow for more nuanced articulations that take into account national political and economic contexts. India is well placed to make the case for attention to “ambition plus implementation” and provide a proof of concept through its own, revised and strengthened Nationally Determined Contribution.
Navroz K Dubash is a Professor at the Centre for Policy Research. His work focuses on climate change, energy, air pollution, water policy, and the politics of regulation in the developing world. This article is a preview of Environmentality, a new blog by the CPR which will explore new ideas and topical developments in the areas of climate, energy and environmental governance. It will be launched on February 17.