In Glasgow, all eyes on 2030

COP26 must focus sharply on reducing emissions till 2030, rather than on net zero 2050, which is too distant a goal

Updated - October 25, 2021 07:27 am IST

Published - October 25, 2021 01:03 am IST

In this file photo, a coal-fired RWE power plant steams on a sunny day in Neurath, Germany.

In this file photo, a coal-fired RWE power plant steams on a sunny day in Neurath, Germany.

The stage is set for the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow , starting October 31. Major preparatory conferences and bilateral meetings have been held to persuade countries to raise their emission reduction commitments from the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) under the Paris Agreement . Some positive outcomes have been achieved. Yet, many high-emitter countries are woefully short of the emissions reductions required by 2030 to restrict global temperature rise to “well below 2°C” or the now de facto goal of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. The loudest buzz now, however, is around net zero emissions by 2050 i.e., greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions equalling absorption by sinks such as forests, even though the substance is much less than the slogan suggests.

Net zero mirage

Media reports and commentary in India and abroad greeted the Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released in August 2021 with shock and awe, but the revealing scientific data were glossed over. Far from emphasising net zero alone, AR6 emphasised that to keep temperature rise within 1.5°C, global emissions should be reduced by 45% from 2010 levels by 2030, on the way to net zero 2050.


Importantly, in the net zero drumbeats spurred on by the U.S. and the UN Secretary General, the foundational principle of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which is common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR), has been forgotten. Developed countries, responsible for over 75% of accumulated atmospheric GHGs causing climate change, should shoulder most of the burden for reducing emissions, while developing countries should do what they can, with technological and financial assistance from the former. So, if the goal is global net zero emissions by 2050, all countries cannot be obliged to reach that goal by the same year. CBDR would imply that developed countries should reach net zero by, say, 2035-40, while developing countries can get there later.

Net zero 2050, as currently posed, is at best a distracting message and at worst deliberately diverts attention away from the urgent 2030 target that COP26 should focus on. The net zero 2050 target is also no proverbial silver bullet, as clearly shown by numbers put out in the UNFCCC Synthesis Report on the updated NDCs, released in September 2021.

2030 targets critical

One hundred and thirteen parties out of 194 submitted updated NDCs by end-July 2021. The UN NDC report tells us that even accounting for these, global emissions in 2030 are expected to be 16.3% above the 2010 level, whereas the IPCC has called for 2030 emissions to be 45% less from 2010 levels for the 1.5°C goal. The report therefore calls for “a significant increase in the level of ambition of NDCs” till 2030.


Several large emitters have announced deeper emission cuts than in the Paris Agreement. The U.K. and the European Union have raised their targets to a significant 68% and 55%, respectively, compared with 1990 levels by 2030. The U.S. is still lagging behind, even as U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry tours the world pushing other countries for deeper emission cuts. The U.S. has now promised net zero emissions by 2050 compared to the 80% reduction that it had promised earlier. The Biden administration has also promised to reduce emissions by 50–52% below 2005 levels by 2030. This is grossly insufficient as the U.S. is the world’s second largest emitter, and the 2005 baseline makes its commitment considerably lower than those of the EU, the U.K. and others using the Kyoto 1990 baseline. Others standing in the way of rapid reductions are Russia, Brazil under Jair Bolsonaro ravaging the Amazon forests, and China, the world’s largest emitter, whose relentless push to add maximum infrastructure, industrial and power-generation capacities before peaking in 2030, may use up much of the cumulative global emissions available for 1.5°C.

The gravity of the situation may be better appreciated through the more scientific metric of carbon budgets, as highlighted in AR6 and AR5. Carbon budgets represent the quantum of CO2 the atmosphere can hold for a given global temperature, best assessed through cumulative emissions and not annual flows. The report of updated NDCs states that “the cumulative CO2 emissions in 2020–2030 based on the latest NDCs would likely use up 89% of the remaining carbon budget, leaving a post-2030 carbon budget of around 55 Gt CO2, which is equivalent to the average annual CO2 emissions in 2020–2030.” Although negotiators and analysts are steeped in using annual flows, estimates based on carbon budgets should be used at Glasgow, if only to assess flows-based arrangements arrived at. As the NDC report says, reaching net zero is necessary to stabilise global temperature rise at a particular level, “but limiting global temperature increase to a specific level would imply limiting cumulative CO2 emissions to within a carbon budget.”


Whither Glasgow COP26?

To reiterate, COP26 must focus sharply on reducing emissions till 2030, rather than on net zero 2050, which is too distant and with possibilities of gaming the system. If COP26 does not focus on achieving the 45% emission cuts from 2010 levels required by 2030 for limiting temperature rise to 1.5°C, and continues with geopolitics as usual, then the world may well have squandered away one of its last chances to avert disastrous climate impacts. Pressure will undoubtedly come from Africa, Least Developed Countries (LDCs), Small Island States and others, but will that tilt the scales against the powerful status quo? It was suggested some years ago that the COP ensures that Parties iteratively raise their commitments till they add up to the requisite 45% reduction by 2030. But who will hold their feet to the fire? Or will the U.S. and others succeed in focusing on the false net zero 2050 solution, escaping their own obligations for 2030 and dangerously kicking the can down the road?


As usual, India is in its own double-edged position. The country emits 7% of global emissions, has extremely low per-capita emissions that are far below the global average and yet ranks as the world’s third largest emitter. It is a G20 member and reputed economic and industrial power. India has so far resisted pressures to raise its Paris Agreement emission reduction commitments. But it has not yet submitted its updated NDC as required and may face difficulties at Glasgow, especially from LDCs and most vulnerable countries feeling existentially threatened even as powerful nations wheel and deal. The well-known website Climate Tracker has now placed India in its second- worst performing category of countries regarding conformity with global 1.5°C goals, down from the top category for 2°C just after the Paris Agreement. India can, without much difficulty, raise its NDC pledge of reducing Emissions Intensity (ratio of emissions to GDP) by 33-35% from 2005 levels by 2030 to 38-40%. This is quite achievable since India has been averaging around 2% p.a. reduction in EI as per its own NDC. Given the net zero chorus, India could also offer to achieve that by 2070-75, invoking CBDR and comparing well with China’s 2060 pledge. If pressed on a peaking year, a 2040-45 guesstimate may not be far off the mark, especially if increasing forest and tree cover are stepped up instead of undermined. For India to convert its ambitions of installing 450GW of renewable power by 2030, adding green hydrogen or increasing electric vehicles into commitments may require more homework than done so far. Will India have the gumption to leverage these offers to push the U.S. and other developed country laggards to step up their commitments and actions towards the 2030 goal, without trade-offs on promises of financial assistance? Only time, of which the world has little left, will tell.


D. Raghunandan is with the Delhi Science Forum, a constituent of the All- India Peoples Science Network

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