At the Climate Summit, India must demand that rich countries remove CO2 from the atmosphere. Reducing emissions is a common, shared responsibility for all nations, removing carbon from the air is differentiated responsibility, depending on how much each nation has contributed to the CO2 burden.
The Sixth Assessment Report of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) does not bring glad tidings. The news is grim. The world is already 1.09° C hotter than the average for 1850-1900. The Paris Agreement’s goal is to restrict temperature rises to below 2° C, preferably below 1.5° C. This seems virtually impossible to achieve simply by reducing further emissions and emission intensity. The aim should be to scrub the atmosphere free of excessive carbon dioxide (CO2).
Now, surveys of people’s attitudes towards climate change show Indians to be keen to do something to fix it. This would appear to be more a case of superior Indian readiness to modulate their response to the surveyor’s perceived preference trumping actual understanding of climate change’s implications or readiness to adapt their lifestyles to moderate such change. Be that as it may, the world looks to India to play a lead, rather than a bit, role in combating climate change.
No Carbon Copy This
At the coming Climate Summit, (Conference of Parties, or COP 26 taking place in Glasgow October 31-November 12), India’s key contribution should be to get the focus right on the corrective action most urgently required: to suck CO2 out of the atmosphere, instead of arguing endlessly on how much-developing countries should reduce their emissions and by when.
Here is a key statement of the Sixth Assessment Report: ‘Under the five illustrative scenarios, in the near term (2021-2040), the 1.5° C global warming level is very likely to be exceeded under the very high GHG emissions scenario (SSP5-8.5), likely to be exceeded under the intermediate and high GHG emissions scenarios (SSP2-4.5 and SSP3-7.0), more likely than not to be exceeded under the low GHG emissions scenario (SSPl-2.6) and more likely than not to be reached under the very low GHG emissions scenario (SSPl-1.9).
Furthermore, for the very low GHG emissions scenario (SSPl-1.9), it is more likely than not that global surface temperature would decline back to below 1.5° C toward the end of the 21st century, with a temporary overshoot of no more than 0.1° C above 1.5° C global warming.’
Further, ‘Many changes in the climate system become larger in direct relation to increasing global warming. They include increases in the frequency and intensity of hot extremes, marine heatwaves, and heavy precipitation, agricultural and ecological droughts in some regions, and proportion of intense tropical cyclones, as well as reductions in Arctic sea ice, snow cover, and permafrost.’
Even with the 1.09° C rise in temperatures, we have seen extreme weather events become more frequent, floods and droughts gain in intensity and push up the demand for energy. So, if the temperature rises 1.5° C above pre-industrial levels, havoc can be imagined. Even with the most extreme reduction in emissions, the cost of climate change would be very high.
The only way to keep the rise in warming below 1.5° C is to deplete the existing stock of carbon in the atmosphere, and not merely cut back on further additions to it.
Of course, emission reduction, through renewable energy, better urban planning, infrastructure design, and lifestyle changes, should continue without let-up. But fear of easing up on emission reduction should not prevent the policy from focusing on the urgent imperative of removing existing carbon from the atmosphere.
Mission Emission Remission
Emission reduction and carbon removal have asymmetric implications for industrial and developing countries. Emission reduction is something everyone has to do: it is a common responsibility. But carbon removal can and should be
preponderantly the responsibility of the nations that polluted the atmosphere with the stuff during the course of their achieving rich country status.
Of the amount of carbon required to be removed to contain warming below 1.50C (700 billion tonnes by 2100, according to the IPCC), each rich nation should take on the responsibility for removing their proportionate share to the cumulative total of man-made greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. This would be costly, to begin with.
The trick is to make the captured CO2 the raw material for industrial processes that generate value. Already, carbon dioxide is used to pack meat, give soda and beer their fizz and increase the yield inside greenhouses. The first two end up releasing the gas back into the air. What is needed is the development of technology that would convert the CO2 into carbon fiber and something else useful through a series of chemical reactions.
Iceland has a direct air capture plant that can suck out and sequester some 4,000 tonnes of carbon a year. That is minuscule, compared to the 40 billion tonnes of CO2 the world continues to add to the atmosphere each year.
Humankind would continue to use assorted petrochemicals. The point is to create the chemistry that would make CO2 the starting material for the industry, rather than petroleum. Research is progressing around the world to this end.
India must be a lead player here, too. Blowing hot air is the stuff of conferences,
COP26 must suck it out.
This article was first published in the Economic Times titled View: At COP 26, India should demand that rich countries remove CO2 from the atmosphere dated October 12, 2021.
About the Author
TK Arun is a consulting editor at ET.