Getting the job done
Given its economic capacity and carbon debt it owes the world, the US should not emit any carbon in the future at all; assert Tejal Kanitkar & Nagraj Adve
The United States Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, John Kerry, is in India. Coming ahead of the US President's "Leaders' Summit on Climate", to be held on April 22-23, the envoy's visit is aimed at coaxing the Indian government to pledge a target of net-zero emissions (or carbon neutrality) by 2050.
Kerry said, "As one of the world's largest economies and a global leader in science and innovation, India is a critical part of the solution to the climate crisis. We see India as an important partner on future clean energy research, development, and deployment, not least because of their successful domestic agenda in this area. A key focus for our administration is supporting and encouraging India's decarbonisation efforts through clean, zero, and low-carbon investment, and supporting India in mitigating its fossil energy use."
A 'net zero' target implies that a country draws down — either by carbon capture or by increasing its natural sinks — as much carbon dioxide/greenhouse gases as it emits. The Biden administration has proposed a similar pledge — that the US will attain net-zero emissions by 2050. We believe that this exercise by the US government is a smokescreen to hide its own long record of inaction on climate change and its continual attempt to pass on the burden of climate change mitigation to other countries, especially those of the Global South that are far less equipped than the US to undertake radical energy transitions.
The US is one of the highest emitters of greenhouse gases. Its per capita CO2 emissions in 2019, at 15.5 tonnes, were over three times the world's average. It is responsible for 24 per cent of the total greenhouse gas emissions to date (from 1850 to 2017). In the last 30 years, successive US governments have derailed negotiations on climate change, continuously changed goalposts for mitigation and refused to take responsibility and compensate for the damage caused by global warming in parts of the world that are not responsible for climate change.
Its pledge of carbon neutrality by 2050 is another attempt to hide the fact that the US will have to take much stronger action if the world is to achieve the target set in the Paris Agreement — that of restricting the increase in average temperatures to well below 2 degrees Celsius (°C), and in fact pursuing efforts to restrict it to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.
It is unfortunate that a call for global net-zero emissions by 2050, which is part of the Paris Agreement, is being misinterpreted as a call for individual countries to achieve carbon neutrality by this time. In fact, the US must achieve net-zero emissions much earlier if the world is to have any hope of restricting temperature rise to below 2°C.
Given its economic capacity and the carbon debt it owes to the world, the US in fact should not emit any carbon in the future at all. However, its carbon neutrality target implies that it will continue to emit greenhouse gases for the next 30 years and further consume a large proportion of the remaining atmospheric space available to prevent a temperature rise beyond 2°C.
The fact that owing to its shale oil and gas 'revolution', the US has recently become the world's largest exporter of oil and gas, does not sit well with its 'net-zero' pledges. Even on the finance and technology front, far from acknowledging its debt to the world, even the highly inadequate promises made by the US to contribute to the Green Climate Fund have not been met. As a teachers' collective studying and teaching climate change, environmental science and justice, we feel it is imperative to call out the inaction of the United States in mitigating climate change.
The expectation that the burden of their inaction will be now borne by developing countries is unfair. While we welcome the fact that it is re-joining the Paris Agreement, we ask that before the US speaks of "narrowing differences on climate change goals", it increases its own ambition in line with what is required to save the world from irreversible climate change.
Views expressed are personal