Commentary: Making pledges was the easy part but it’s a long road to net-zero emissions
The trouble with carbon offsets and the lack of an implementable roadmap in most countries’ declarations make climate action a wicked, urgent problem, says Yale-NUS’ Angel Hsu.
SINGAPORE: It has been five years since the Paris climate treaty was agreed upon by nearly all countries.
In a year where the COVID-19 pandemic has dominated media headlines and policy agendas, more countries have recently announced their intentions to raise their initial pledges made at the Paris Agreement.
Some notable “enhanced ambition” declarations in the last several months include China’s intention to decarbonise by 2060, and the UK government’s goal to reduce emissions by 68 per cent as part of its own 2050 net-zero target.
So far, more than 126 governments around the world have made some sort of pledge to achieve “net-zero” emissions by mid-century or sooner – referring to the point at which the amount of greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere is equivalent to the amount of emissions removed from the atmosphere.
This idea is of critical global significance. If we hope to avoid the worst impacts of the climate crisis — which threatens to create millions of climate migrants, jeopardise our food and water supplies, and worsen public health—the latest climate science tells us that humanity needs to collectively reach net zero by 2050, which will give us a chance to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
READ: Singapore targets to halve peak emissions by 2050, achieve net zero emissions 'as soon as viable' in second half of century
In addition to national governments making net-zero climate commitments, my team and I at the Data-Driven EnviroLab have seen growing momentum amongst cities, regional governments, and companies pledging net-zero.
So far, city and regional governments that have made net-zero targets encompass 880 million people, or 11 per cent of the global population.
These include cities like Copenhagen, which pledges to become carbon neutral by 2030, and states in the United States like California, which aims to decarbonise by 2040 and is the fifth largest economy in the world.
In 11 countries including Australia, South Africa and Japan, over half of the national population lives in a city or region with a net-zero target.
Similarly, companies totalling more than US$12.5 trillion have committed to some type of net-zero target. Some companies, like Microsoft, are aiming to go net-negative, pulling more carbon out of the atmosphere than they have put in.
MAKING THE PLEDGE IS THE EASY PART
These commitments are impressive, yet concerns loom regarding the content and quality of the pledges.
Making a pledge is easy, but it is much harder to implement necessary technological improvements, enact efficiency measures, and reduce consumption.
Net-zero targets from cities and regions are usually voluntary or are part of a pledge made through international initiatives, such as the UNFCCC Race to Zero Campaign, and are not always formalised in legislation or backed with enforcement or accountability mechanisms.
READ: Commentary: Reaching net-zero emissions will be ‘very challenging’. But watch Singapore try anyway
Fewer than 20 per cent of local government net-zero targets analysed by my team are currently codified in legislature.
THE PROBLEM WITH CARBON OFFSETS
Companies, particularly those in hard-to-abate sectors like iron and steel or cement, may not be able to achieve zero emissions on their own, and so are utilising carbon offsets as part of their net-zero strategies.
A carbon offset allows for companies to support renewable energy production or land-based carbon sinks (such as a reforestation project) to make up for the carbon they emit on-site.
While in theory this market-based approach provides an elegant solution to address climate change, the reality is that many existing offsets are low-quality, short-lived, and underpriced so they don’t capture the full cost of emitting a tonne of carbon dioxide.
While economists estimate the average social cost of carbon – i.e., the economic damage of a tonne of carbon – to be around US$100 to US$200 per tonne of carbon dioxide or even as high as US$417, in 2018, the average cost of a carbon offset was only US$3 per tonne.
With such a low price, offsets cannot truly capture the full economic impacts of emitting carbon and provide little incentive for companies to change their polluting behaviour.
Land and forestry-based offsets are also prone to an impermanence problem. Regular, devastating forest fires occurring in California and Australia, for example, are a reminder that relying on trees as carbon sinks for offsets is a temporary solution to climate change, considering greenhouse gases stay in the atmosphere for at least a hundred years.
We found evidence of companies relying on offsets as part of their net-zero commitments, although a greater proportion were not transparent as to whether they plan to use them at all.
The dearth of detailed net-zero plans points to a larger problem with respect to the flurry of recent target announcements – the need for local governments, companies, and countries to transparently report how exactly they plan to decarbonise.
Due to the lack of methodological consistency and lack of transparent details on the permanence, verification and additionality of offsets being used, we cannot be confident that carbon offsets will create the expected emissions reductions governments and businesses claim to make.
Unless permanent carbon storage solutions can be guaranteed, offsets are a tenuous band-aid to only temporarily divert attention away from the real emissions reductions that are required for decarbonisation.
A BIGGER DECARBONISATION CHALLENGE LOOMS IN ASIA
In Asia, the decarbonisation challenge is complicated by vast differences in development and the economic impact of COVID-19.
While experiencing drops in carbon dioxide emissions in the first half of 2020 due to COVID-19 lockdown measures, countries’ emissions are expected to rebound in 2021 due to economic reopening, but this pause for the climate gives an opportunity for Asian countries to consider COVID-19 recovery alongside tackling climate change.
South Korea, for instance, has launched a “K-New Deal” that aims to jumpstart its economy by creating green jobs and boosting investment in clean energy technology.
Southeast Asia, which is industrialising and growing at breakneck speed, with an 80 per cent increase in energy demand since 2000, has doubled its fossil fuel consumption and stands to become a net importer of fossil fuels.
For the region to contribute to global decarbonisation goals, Southeast Asia will need to rapidly increase the share of renewable energy supply, which currently stands at only around 15 per cent.
SINGAPORE’S OIL DILEMMA
Singapore has announced that it is aiming to halve peak emissions by 2050 and achieve net-zero as soon as viable in the second half of the century. While this is an encouraging sign of climate leadership, exactly how Singapore plans to get there is still an open question.
As I have written before, for Singapore’s climate efforts to be credible the country must first address its largest carbon footprint contributor: Its petrochemical sector.
Most of the petrochemicals produced in Singapore are exported and their eventual usage aren’t counted in Singapore’s emission inventories, yet “leakage” of these emissions to other countries is fundamentally incompatible with a net-zero world.
While Singapore is investing heavily in nature-based solutions, such as tree planting and forest protection, these solutions are not adequate to fully offset the carbon footprint of its oil refining sector.
Singapore needs a clear roadmap for how it plans to create a just transition away from the petroleum and refining industry, embracing new job and investment opportunities in the green economy, such as renewable energy technology, green building development, and in smart, digital solutions.
Listen to the ways Singapore is taking smart bets on tech to tackle climate issues on CNA's The Climate Conversations:
Singapore leads the world in smart-city infrastructure, regularly being named the “Smartest City”. Why not take a beat from South Korea and envision a future smart and green economy that could create even more jobs?
The drop of oil prices to negative values during the early days of the pandemic should be a harbinger of what is to come if Singapore continues to hedge its economic future on an industry that will need to transition in a future carbon-constrained, net-zero world, where the externalities of climate change and pollution quickly outweigh short-term financial gains.
It is time for Singapore to develop a roadmap, a clear plan for how it will meet its net-zero promise. There are bold examples in Asia to follow.
In addition to South Korea’s Green New Deal, China has already revealed its sweeping plans for achieving its 2060 carbon neutrality goal, which will entail completely eliminating coal from its fuel mix by 2050.
Top climate officials have also made public statements about China’s need to stop supporting the construction of fossil-fuel assets abroad, particularly coal-fired power plants.
With more than 70 per cent of coal plants being built today globally backed by Chinese funding, this move would be a huge step forward in helping recipients of this financing, primarily developing countries, decarbonise.
The climate is apolitical. It won’t wait for us to resolve our disputes about who should be reducing emissions and by when.
It will continue to warm and climate impacts continue to worsen, and every day that we fail to act quickly and decisively is an opportunity lost to turn things around.
Angel Hsu is an Assistant Professor of Environmental Policy at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and was formerly Assistant Professor of Social Sciences (Environmental Studies) at Yale-NUS College.
Listen to an episode on oil, energy and geopolitics CNA's The Climate Conversations podcast where Pulitzer Prize-winning author Daniel Yergin talks about how energy is reshaping global politics:
Editor's Note: This commentary has been updated to reflect more specifically that usage of exported petrochemicals is not included in Singapore's emissions inventories, and correct an error related to Singapore's timelines on achieving net-zero emissions. We apologise for the error.