‘Net Zero Emissions’ is the new political slogan, chanted by governments and business leaders desperate to be seen to be taking the environmental emergency seriously.
Of the nations pledging to hit zero greenhouse gas emissions (GGE) no later than 2050, twenty have legal commitments to do so (Sweden, Austria, Bhutan, Costa Rica, Denmark, European Union, Fiji, Finland, France, Hungary, Iceland, Japan, Marshall Islands, New Zealand, Norway, Singapore, Slovenia, United Kingdom), another twenty countries, including the USA, are drafting policy documents, leaving 100, including China, talking it over.
Many suspect that, like other catchy lyrics, the net zero song governments and corporations are singing lacks substance, and that corporate politicians with their short-sighted policies, have no intention of taking the radical steps needed. Interviewed by the BBC, US climate envoy, John Kerry recently dismissed suggestions that changes in American lifestyle and reductions to the colossal levels of consumption, including large amounts of animal produce, were needed, saying, “You don’t have to give up quality of life to achieve some of the things we want to achieve.” The American public (and presumably the overindulgent everywhere), according to Kerry, can have their cake and eat it.
Habitual irresponsible consumerism by rich, comfortably off nations, is the underlying cause of the environmental emergency, including climate change. If the fundamental changes needed to achieve net zero are to be introduced, the poison of complacency infecting John Kerry, among others in power, political and corporate, needs to be cut out, urgently.
Warming and food
It is man-made GHG emissions that are causing the planet to heat up. Emissions that must be purged from the atmosphere in order to meet commitments made in the 2016 Paris Climate Accord to limit average global warming to 1.5˚C. Even if net zero is achieved, there is no guarantee that warming will be limited to 1.5˚C, and whatever increases occur they are not uniform across the planet; some areas, the north and south poles e.g., are heating up more quickly than others. Since 2017, when, The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, global warming reached 1˚C above pre-industrial levels, global ground temperatures have increased (despite repeated warnings) at between 0.1˚C and 0.3˚per decade. Natural weather patterns have been completely disrupted by this level of warming, resulting in the melting of polar ice caps, rising sea levels, more frequent, intense heatwaves, floods and droughts. If net zero is achieved, and if global temperatures are limited to 1.5˚C (by latest 2050), both very big ‘ifs’, the projected impact will be less than if warming exceeds 1.5, but still far reaching. IPCC: “Ocean warming and acidification…would impact a wide range of marine organisms and ecosystems, as well as …aquaculture and fisheries…the majority (70–90%) of warm water (tropical) coral reefs that exist today will disappear …malaria and dengue will increase…Poverty and disadvantage are expected to increase for many populations…risks for coastal tourism, particularly in subtropical and tropical regions, will increase…small islands are projected to experience multiple inter-related risks: coastal flooding and impacts on populations, infrastructures and assets.”All shocking, and one suspects, conservative predictions.
To support companies and countries the United Nations Climate Change agency has set up Race to Zero, – “a global campaign to rally leadership and support from businesses, cities, regions, investors.” Over 2,300 businesses in 708 cities have signed up, and together with 120 countries, they form what the UN describe as “the largest ever alliance committed to achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050 at the latest.” If this target is to be reached a revolution within the sectors that produce most GHG emissions is needed. This requires a major shift in focus within governments and businesses, as well as changes in collective behavior.
Energy production accounts for around 70% of total emission; this includes electricity and heat (30%), manufacturing and construction (13%), transportation (15%), followed by food production, consumption and waste. The UN Food Agency reports that, “the world’s food systems are responsible for more than one-third of global anthropogenic [man-made] greenhouse gas emissions.” This includes deforestation, “agricultural production…packaging and waste management.” Animal agriculture alone contributes around 12% of the total, and global food waste (primarily an issue in developed nations), which accounts for a third of all food produced, is responsible for eight to 10% of GHG emissions.
Renewable energy and awareness
Moving to renewable sources of energy production (solar, wind, hydroelectric and biogas), which are now less expensive than fossil fuels, is essential if the sector is to reduce GHG emissions. Although countries vary, the trend is positive: In Germany 46% of power production for 2020, came from renewables, this resulted in a decrease in GHG emissions in Germany of 42% compared with 1990 levels. In Sweden, where 54.5% of power now comes from renewables (hydroelectricity and biomass), the structure of power production is also changing. Smart grids are turning Swedish homes into power-making ‘prosumers’ (producer/consumers). Photovoltaic solar panels, thermal energy storage and heat pump systems are being installed in residential buildings, an energy grid connects them and helps to charge electric cars overnight. The UK, where COP21 is being held, produced 42% of power from renewables in 2020, slightly more than the 41% from fossil fuels.
China (population 1.4 billion), which currently emits the largest percentage of GHG emissions, although per capita the USA is the single biggest emitter by some margin, aims to hit peak GHG emissions by 2030 and neutrality by 2060; in 2020 29.5% of total electricity consumption is said to have been from renewables. At the lower end of the scale according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, only 11.4% of US energy comes from renewables, 80% from fossil fuels. In addition to China, the EU and America, what happens in India (per-capita emissions are extremely low but rising) is crucial to the evolving global total. Currently around 10% of energy production comes from renewables, up 6% from 2014.
Individuals cannot determine energy production, but we can all decide where we buy our energy from and participate in pressurizing government and corporations to move quickly to renewables. Choosing companies that genuinely supply electricity from renewables (not always straightforward), is a socially/environmentally responsible action; such diligence should govern, not just decisions on energy supplier, but all our consumer commitments and lifestyle habits.
Reducing emissions from the food industry is something everyone can contribute to: cut down the amount of animal produce, or stop it altogether; reduce the quantity of food, many of us eat too much, and, through lack of education and poor habits, too much of the wrong type of food; select non-packaged foodstuffs; where possible shop at markets and buy local seasonal produce, and don’t waste food.
Another way to reduce GHG emissions is by strengthening natural sponges. Planting more trees, protecting forests and woodlands, incorporating trees and gardens into urban developments, maintaining and restoring peatlands, all of which not only soak up carbon, the main GHG, but enrich biodiversity and encourage wildlife.
Reaching net zero within the timeframe agreed calls for united global action by governments, corporations and individuals. Reversing the appalling damage humanity has inflicted on the natural world requires a fundamental change in behavior, attitudes and values, and at some point fundamental reform to the socio-economic system. A shift towards simpler, cleaner lives, moving from excess to sufficiency, only buying stuff when it’s needed, driving and flying less, shopping and eating in an environmentally responsible manner, boycotting environmentally destructive companies, and withholding support from environmentally irresponsible governments.
As with change of all kinds, awareness is key. Being aware of the urgency and depth of the crisis through education; awareness of governments policies and actions, are they rooted in environmental concerns or are they still anchored in the economics of greed. And awareness of our daily behavior and the impact it has on the environment. We all have a part to play in the work of environmental salvage, if we unite and act, if our governments and businesses respond whole heartedly, perhaps, net zero can be achieved and the healing of our beautiful planet can begin in earnest.