Real cost of net zero carbon could be mass hunger

Governments and companies are happy to make net zero carbon pledges. Their real cost could be ruinous for the poor.

Trees in Century Park in Shanghai, China
Trees in Century Park in Shanghai, China. Tree planting to tackle climate change could compete with agriculture, to leave starvation a massive threat. Image: IceNineJonCC BY-NC-ND 3.0

Plans for removing carbon from the atmosphere, if they proved workable, could exact a lethal price from those least able to afford it: starvation for the world’s poorest people. Anti-poverty campaigners say implementing some net zero carbon schemes could devastate the prospects for global agriculture.

A report by Oxfam International, the global campaign to end poverty, says one of the favoured schemes, planting trees, is totally unrealistic, as it would require 1.6 billion hectares of new forests, an area five times the size of India, and greater than all the existing farmland on the planet.

To prevent irreversible damage to the climate and limit temperature rise to the internationally agreed target of 1.5°C above historic levels, governments need to be on track by 2030 to cut carbon emissions by 45 per cent from their 2010 levels, according to the UNFCCC, the United Nations climate change convention.

It says countries’ current plans to cut emissions are inadequate to limit warning to the more lenient 2°C target agreed at its meeting in Paris in 2015, let alone to the 1.5°C that scientists say is necessary. Oxfam says the current plans will achieve only a 1 per cent reduction in emissions, a long way from the 45 per cent that is needed.

Nature and land-based carbon removal schemes must be pursued in a much more cautious way… They could instead spark even more hunger, land grabs and human rights abuses.

Nafkote Dabi, climate change lead, Oxfam International

Risky gamble

The current lack of governmental action on climate is undermining the efforts of Oxfam and many others to tackle inequality and poverty around the world, while the climate crisis is worsening the humanitarian crisis, hunger and migration.

Nafkote Dabi, Oxfam International’s climate change lead, said: “‘Net zero’ should be based on ‘real zero’ targets that require drastic and genuine cuts in emissions, phasing out fossil fuels and investing in clean energy and supply chains. Instead, too many ‘net zero’ commitments provide a fig leaf for climate inaction. They are a dangerous gamble with our planet’s future.

“Nature and land-based carbon removal schemes must be pursued in a much more cautious way. Under current plans, there is simply not enough land in the world to realise them all. They could instead spark even more hunger, land grabs and human rights abuses.”

Separately Patricia Espinosa, the UNFCCC’s executive secretary, also expressed concern at what she said was governments’ failure to be realistic on net zero carbon.

Every government is supposed to have submitted its “nationally determined contribution” (NDC) by 31July, stating the emissions it plans to make to contribute to the target of keeping global temperature rise to 1.5°C. Only 110 of the 197 governments that signed up in Paris to provide one had done so by the deadline.

“Recent extreme heat waves, droughts and floods across the globe are a dire warning that much more needs to be done, and much more quickly, to change our current pathway. This can only be achieved through more ambitious NDCs”, Patricia Espinosa said.

The Oxfam report says the world’s three largest carbon emitters − China, the US and the EU − have pledged to reach net zero by mid-century, but that their plans are vague and unverifiable.

Some plans − Colombia’s, for example − require reforesting on a grand scale. Its forests are still disappearing alarmingly fast, but it pledges to reforest one billion hectares of land by 2030, although there is no sign of that happening.

One-fifth of the world’s 2,000 largest public companies now have net zero goals that depend on land-based carbon sinks. Four of the world’s largest oil companies − BP, Eni, Shell and TotalEnergies − would have to forest an area of land twice the size of the UK to achieve net zero by 2050.

Trusting technology

But unlikely pledges on forests are not the only weaknesses of government and corporation planning to make net zero carbon a possibility. For example the UK, host to November’s COP-26 climate talks, relies heavily on unproven technologies that will magically be developed and built in time to reach net zero by 2050.

These include a new generation of nuclear power stations that are still at the early development stage. The UK is also relying on large-scale carbon capture and storage – a long-promised technology, many of whose bids to succeed have been abandoned as too expensive and impractical. The government hopes as well to replace fossil fuel gas with green hydrogen produced from surplus renewable energy and nuclear power – a hugely ambitious idea.

Meanwhile job-producing and much-needed plans to insulate homes and improve building standards, promised both last year and this, have been postponed again.

Although this is the quickest and easiest way of reducing the UK’s largest source of emissions, the contribution from buildings, the government has met opposition from house builders, many of whom are large donors to the ruling Conservative party’s funds

This story was published with permission from Climate News Network.

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