Carbon neutrality by 2050: An ambitious and focused objective

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of PLC.

The Paris Agreement aims to find a balance between "anthropogenic emissions from sources and anthropogenic removals by sinks of greenhouse gases" such as forests and wetlands. [Stiller Beobachter/Flickr]

In 2050, France will have to be carbon neutral. An objective that should prompt to action, accord to Renaud Bettin.

Renaud Bettin manages the Info Compensation Carbon program, run by GERES.

2050 is far. As far as 1980, when we became aware of the human impact on climate.

But 2050 is tomorrow as well: today’s children will be in their thirties.

In this context, “neutrality” is a misnomer: it evokes indifference and lack of interest, whereas the complete opposite is the case.

Carbon neutrality is an active engagement, an investment into a more ecological and equal future, a strong will to tip the balance towards ambition and action. Let’s explain.

What does “carbon neutrality” mean?

What do the Vatican, toilet paper and the mailing service share? Carbon neutrality.

Since the Kyoto protocol signed 20 years ago and the launch of carbon offsetting, numerous organisations became interested into this new climatic “Holy Grail”.

Without naming it, the Paris Agreement on climate change treats global carbon neutrality through Article 4: “ a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases”.

A goal to be achieved “in the second half of this century”.

But how? Let’s take the French example.

France reaffirmed in its recent climate plan “Factor 4”, or reducing emissions to a fourth of 1990 levels by 2050. This means a 75% drop in emissions. The remaining 25% will need to be offset to achieve carbon neutrality.

The equation is as follows: 75% reduction in emissions at their source +25% offsetting of remaining emissions = 0 net emissions.

The term “zero net emissions” would have been more appropriate. It conveys the idea that emissions that can’t be avoided will need to be offset by other means to achieve neutrality.

The important question is which emissions are considered in carbon accounting. Are we including direct and/or indirect emissions?

It is clear that every self-described “carbon neutral” organisation does what it can – and mostly, what it wants.

Hence indirect carbon emissions, which are harder to act upon, are rarely accounted for.

This is not the case for Paris’ ambitious climate plan, which promotes full accounting of almost all direct and indirect emissions to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, by investing in 10% renewable energy sources.

Negative emissions with a positive effect

Carbon neutrality prioritises cutting emissions at the source. Residual emissions must then be offset by developing the absorption power of natural carbon sinks. This is what “negative emissions” are: CO2 emissions being absorbed by forests, soils or wetlands.

French environmentalist Nicolas Hulot affirms: “without using the ecosystem’s capacity to absorb emissions, we will never get there”.

Natural carbon sinks will have to take part in the battle for carbon neutrality.

France is working towards a labeling scheme, which will be voluntary.

The “low carbon” label will first be applied to emission-offsetting projects in the forestry and agricultural sectors. But it may well be applied to other sectors, so far untouched by the European carbon market.

The International Energy Agency affirms that if all international pledges are fulfilled, in 2050 we will be left with 9 (Gt) of CO2-equivalent (CO2-eq) to offset and compensate. Why then waiting?

On a par with the energy and ecological transition needed to reduce our carbon footprint, it is necessary to get on with carbon compensation projects.

These could be pioneering the effort on climate adaptation and become useful tools to finance our actions on climate change.

Developing countries now represent 60% of global emissions, and are bound to grow their share further before being able to reduce the emission levels in their growth model, despite the technological ability to decouple growth from CO2 emissions.

To those who call it“vague”, I say that carbon neutrality is a clear, precise and ambitious objective, because it calls for implementation starting now, not in 2050.