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Aiming at carbon neutrality by 2030 in Portugal

This note by the editorial team of the new edition of the Climate Jobs in Portugal report explains why the report aims at highly ambitious emissions cuts in all sectors of the economy and how it interacts with existing climate policies.

The Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5ºC prepared by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns that the world needs to reach net zero emissions of CO2 by 2050 in order to have a 66% chance to remain below the catastrophic 1.5ºC warming threshold.

The European Union adopted a European Green Deal that points at carbon neutrality by 2050. The newly elected US president Joe Biden’s climate plan also mentions 2050 as the deadline for carbon neutrality. The Portuguese government prepared and adopted a Carbon Neutrality Roadmap for 2050. Japan also announced recently that the country would achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, as did some other countries from the Global North. Accordingly, the Chinese government announced its commitment for net zero emissions by 2060.

All of this constitutes a giant problem. Below, we list four reasons of concern on accepting the current policy line: we raise concerns on scientific, technical, political, and global justice perspectives.

1. Are carbon neutrality 2050 targets based on climate science?

The IPCC report describes emission pathways where if global CO2 emissions are cut by half in 2030 and reach net zero by 2050, then there is a 66% likelihood for not crossing 1.5ºC warming until the end of this century. This means that if we follow such a pathway to net zero in 2050 there is still a 1 in 3 chance that we will go over 1.5ºC warming.

This is a 1 in 3 chance of collapse for the earth systems. (In comparison, the odds of an airplane crash are 1 in 10.000.000, and many people are still scared of flying.) This figure cannot be reduced to the precautionary principle, because it’s about human survival altogether: if someone told you that your house would burn to ashes tonight by a one out of three chance, would you be able to sleep?

We would like to remind that the IPCC reports are on the conservative side of science as a rule, methodologically underplaying the impacts and possible futures.

Furthermore, the panel’s reports are based on linear models – the best we can rigorously use at the moment – and therefore do not quantify the chances of runaway climate change due to positive feedback mechanisms inherent to the Earth’s climate, such as the lost albedo effect, the melting of the permafrost, collapse of the forests, and methane liberated from the ocean floors.

Therefore, we argue that a global target for net zero emissions by 2050 is too terrifying to aim at, independent of other political and economic considerations. We need to achieve carbon neutrality before 2050 in order to have a climate change to which it is technically possible to adapt.

2. Net emissions vs not emissions

Net emissions are defined as real life emissions from human activities minus the human activities that capture and fixate carbon (so called “negative” emissions).

The gradual discourse shift from “emissions” to “net emissions” was a major political victory for the fossil fuel industry, as it shifted the focus away from actual industrial activities towards accounting tricks.

When governments refer to net emissions, they virtually always have some sort of negative emission technology in mind that would enter into effect sooner or later to balance out real emissions.

Some of these technologies like planet-wide geoengineering projects exist only in some people’s minds and their only real impact is to tranquilize public opinion about climate risks. Others like carbon capture and storage have insignificant applications and are widely considered technologically and economically nonviable (not to mention the social, environmental and ethical problems concerning their implementation).

The IPCC report draws four pathways that limit global warming to 1.5ºC, of which three depend on such technologies although the same report mentions a couple of pages before that they “face large uncertainties and knowledge gaps as well as substantial risks and institutional and social constraints to deployment related to governance, ethics, and impacts on sustainable development.”

Finally, massive afforestation is also considered “negative” emissions that could “offset” real-life emissions. Forests will surely play a crucial role in mitigation and adaptation efforts to tackle climate change. However, planting a tree only makes “negative” emissions if the entity planting it protects it for about a century (most CO2 released into the air dissolves into the ocean over a period of 20–200 years, although it is possible for CO2 molecules to last up to 1000 years in the atmosphere). At the moment, the main proponents of these schemes are fossil fuel multinationals who buy offsetting projects somewhere in the Global South and increase their emission quotas, independent of what happens in real life. In some cases, local populations and indigenous peoples are expropriated so that natural forests that don’t cause negative emissions in climate accounting are transformed (in paper) into human-managed forests that do. In other cases, the projects are entirely fictional, selling a speculation about a possible emission cut somewhere sometime. In yet other cases, a dry summer burns away all the offset forests, increasing the emission balance, not of the fossil fuel company that bought it but of the subcontracted offsetting company operating it. It goes without saying that “afforestation” never produces forests but plantations in the best case.

Therefore, we conclude that commitments on net emissions do not necessarily secure emissions reductions required by the climate models. We need drastic real-life emission cuts rather than promises on carbon neutrality. If we are to use mainstream language involving net emissions and carbon neutrality in order to simplify communication, then we must aim at much earlier deadlines.

3. Are carbon neutrality 2050 targets politically reliable?

The commitments and pledges for carbon neutrality are coming from politicians that do not openly deny climate science, in contrast to Donald Trump in the USA, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Vladimir Putin in Russia, and Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey. Even in countries with democratic and fair elections, the time frame until 2050 involves six to seven governments.

Pushing the responsibility several decades away also has another problem: our carbon budget, the upper limit for the amount of greenhouse gases we can still emit while having a chance of staying below 1.5ºC warming, is a single number. Every year we are using up this budget, and therefore end up with less time to reduce emissions. With the current trends, we would use up all the remaining budgets by 2030. In other words, if we continue the current emissions until 2030, then we would have to shut down everything and achieve abrupt net zero emissions on that same year (instead of a gradual reduction).

The German government’s Coal Commission is probably the best example of this responsibility evasion. Angela Merkel looked at us in the eye, and told us that she will make sure coal does not end until her death.1

4. Do carbon neutrality 2050 targets take global climate justice into consideration?

When the EU and the US announce carbon neutrality on a certain date, they are also giving signals to the rest of the world. Other countries will justly set later deadlines for their own emissions targets, considering historical responsibilities and capacities (as can be seen in China’s 2060 pledge).

To achieve global net zero emissions by 2050, then in 2049 only the countries that are least responsible for climate change can have some (but still insignificant) greenhouse gas emissions. This means that the countries in the Global North must reach carbon neutrality long before 2050.

On the one hand, the historical responsibility for centuries-long emissions as well as the countries’ capability to act should be considered for a fair distribution of emission cuts. The Climate Equity Reference Calculator demonstrates how each country’s emissions should look like, based on a variety of parameters. For instance, the calculator shows that the real emissions impact of the European Union as of 2030 should be of negative emissions of the magnitude of today’s real emissions: in round terms, this means that by 2030 the EU should have zero emissions and should further be contributing to cutting as much emissions in other parts of the world as its emissions today.

We take global social justice as a core principle and therefore adopt the guidelines of the Climate Equity Reference Calculator.

On the other hand, however, it is also possible to pretend that we live in a global society where all countries negotiate emission cuts in harmony and cooperation, and consider only the present time-constraints for and impact of just transition. In fact, researchers identify two parameters that should guide this discussion.

The first parameter is the country’s capacity to fund a just transition plan. This capacity depends on the level of development of the country. As a rule of thumb, countries at the benefiting end of colonialism have a higher capacity to fund a just transition plan in comparison to the colonized peoples and territories. The capacity defines whether the country’s just transition should rely on international support or not.

The researchers identify a second parameter: the country’s dependence on fossil fuels in terms of tax revenues and the availability of alternative development paths. This dependence would define the speed of the transition. On the high capacity end of the equation, the researchers point out, Germany and the US have much more diverse state budgets in comparison to Brunei or Kuwait. On the low capacity end, same is true for Tanzania and Mozambique vis-à-vis Iraq and South Africa.

Thereby, we reach the following table guiding our approach to emission reduction targets.

Its colonial past and its integration to the European Union subsystem puts Portugal in the upper part of this matrix. As a south European country next to the Atlantic ocean makes Portugal particularly lucky in terms of solar and wind energy, while the fact that there is no fossil fuel extraction in the country amplifies its economic flexibility.

Therefore, both approaches tell us that Portugal must have a rapid phase-out and then quickly provide support for just transition in the Global South.

We would like to underline that a global justice agenda is not only ethical but also strategic. We need a global, honest and persuasive plan to reach zero emissions worldwide. On the one hand, climate denialist governments should feel isolated when confronted with the plan. On the other hand, the plan must distribute responsibilities fairly in order to persuade all governments: from a simplistic viewpoint, if we reach 2050 and there is one country with greenhouse gas emissions, then our plan is a failure for all.

We argue that carbon neutrality by 2030 in Portugal is the only viable time frame to avoid climate catastrophe.

Climate justice agenda for Portugal must aim at Carbon Neutrality by 2030.

We acknowledge the difficulty of achieving carbon neutrality in ten years, in any country. The climate jobs campaign bases its work on science and evidence, and our report will therefore be guided by a carbon neutrality 2030 objective. We further acknowledge the uncertainties about emission inventories and the complexity of certain sectors like agriculture, industry and waste where complete decarbonization poses further technical challenges. We accept these challenges in the preparation of the Climate Jobs report, and aim at doing our best to be in compliance with them.

We further argue that the only viable transition is just transition. We believe that market mechanism based energy transition strategies were tested for more than two decades and failed us miserably. The current policy proposals guarantee a warming of more than 3ºC, which means crossing planetary tipping points before mid-century.

A massive climate jobs program is the only climate-realistic plan available at the moment. This is why our revised report, to be launched in 2021, will include major improvements to the previous edition in all sectors and in all chapters.

1The Commission proposed coal phase-out by 2038. Female life expectancy in Germany is 83.3 years. Merkel would be 84 years old in 2038.

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