Zero net emissions: will leaders agree target at UN climate summit?

Calls for long term carbon cutting strategy grow louder as countries prepare for Ban Ki-moon meeting

Pic: World Bank Photo Collection

Pic: World Bank Photo Collection

By Ed King

UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon could lead calls for countries to agree a zero net emissions target at the close of his New York summit next week, RTCC understands.

Officials have been working on his address for the past few months, and are considering references to a zero carbon target by the end of the century.

Ban is already on record backing a zero emissions target, labelling it “ambitious but achievable” last November. But a call for action to over 160 heads of state and leading officials would raise its profile.

A UN spokesperson in New York told RTCC that Ban’s speech was not finalized and he could not confirm its contents, but there appears to be growing pressure from civil society and some governments for its inclusion.

Campaign group Avaaz says 1.7 million people have signed up to its petition for a net zero goal.

The OECD, Marshall Islands, Grenada, Norway, France, Germany as well as regional groupings such as the Least Developed Countries and AILAC (a Latin American alliance) registered their support at UN talks in June.

Supporters say adopting a long term goal for carbon neutrality would underpin current negotiations on developing a global climate deal, due to be agreed in 2015.


The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says there is a “likely chance” the planet could avoid warming of beyond 2C if global greenhouse gas emissions hit net zero between 2050 and 2100.

While UN envoys talk of avoiding dangerous warming, leading fossil fuel producers like BP believe carbon emissions will rise 29% by 2035, driven by growth in emerging economies.

Writing in the Guardian earlier this month, UN climate chief Christiana Figueres said it was the “best guarantee of ensuring that the poor and vulnerable are spared” the worst effects of global warming.

She added: “Climate neutrality is not nirvana or an alternative universe – it is about dramatically reducing current emissions to the point where we reach a balance between those emissions entering the atmosphere and the capacity of the Earth to absorb them.”

A global commission chaired by former Mexico president Felipe Calderon, and advised by Lord Stern, a former World Bank economist, added its backing to the target in a report yesterday.

“The signalling effect of such an agreement would be valuably increased if it included a long-term goal to reduce net GHG emissions to near zero or below by the second half of this century,” it said.

“The Commission supports the proposal that this should be to reduce net GHG emissions to near zero or below in the second half of this century.”

The IPCC’s carbon budget concept holds that a fixed level of CO2 can be emitted before the world is locked into warming above 2C.

It said the budget could be depleted in as little as 25 years, and beyond this point all emissions would have to be equal to those absorbed either naturally, through carbon capture or geoengineering schemes.

Step by step

Farhana Yamin, founder of NGO Track 0, told RTCC only a long term target would offer a clear direction to the global economy that the fossil fuel era is at an end.

“Incremental actions and shorter term targets for 5 years or even 10 do not give this long term signal to investors and business,” she said.

Yamin believes a zero net emissions goal could help frame the individual pledges and commitments that leading economies are expected to deliver to the UN by March 2015.

“You could see it as a ‘basket’ that helps to hold the individual commitments from countries all together so that we can all be sure we are on track to stay below the agreed 2C limit,” she said.

In a feasibility study published in 2013, analysts at Ecofys say phasing out GHG emissions by the 2050 would be economically feasible with technologies available now or in the near future.

These include deploying carbon capture systems (CCS) for energy producers and heavy industry, investing in zero emissions buildings, and encouraging reforestation.

But it would also present some sectors with immense challenges.  Air, water and freight transport would need to shift to 100% biofuel use, while retrofitting CCS is likely to remain expensive.

Niklas Höhne, Ecofys director of energy and climate, said it would be a “significant step forward” for policymakers if the concept was taken forward in New York.

“This new concept of net zero emissions is very straightforward, you can explain it to everybody,” he said.

“That if you want to be compatible in keeping climate to non-dangerous levels then you need to go to zero, and the earlier you do that the lower temperature increase is, and that’s a much easier concept for all the players that are trying to do something about climate change.”

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