How to Be ‘Carbon Neutral’ If You’re Not Bhutan

By Jeremy Hodges | Bloomberg
There’s a tiny nation nestled in the Himalaya mountains with so many trees — and so little pollution — that it actually gobbles up more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than it produces. Unfortunately for the fight against global climate change, most of the world’s countries aren’t like Bhutan. Instead, they spew out CO2 and other greenhouse gases faster than they can be contained. But some countries, including the U.K. and several Nordic nations, are now committing to fight climate change by slashing their net output of carbon dioxide to zero — aspiring to become what’s known as carbon neutral.

  1. What’s required to be carbon-neutral?
    It means cutting emissions as much as is possible and balancing what can’t be eliminated with compensatory actions to achieve a zero carbon “footprint.” To reduce the CO2 released into the air, countries can spur the use of cleaner autos, transition their economies away from carbon-intensive heavy manufacturing and switch to greener sources of electricity like wind and solar. One of the most promising ways to reduce emissions, still unproven at an industrial scale, is to trap CO2 from polluters before it enters the atmosphere and bottle it up in giant underground cavities — a technology known as carbon capture and storage.
  2. How do the numbers add up?
    It’s unrealistic to entirely eliminate CO2 output, so polluters can balance out emissions by buying carbon “offset” credits. These allowances, which are being developed by the United Nations and non-profit groups, let the owners emit a specified amount of greenhouse gas that’s offset by carbon-reduction projects elsewhere, such as reforestation. There’s also an effort to harness existing markets that trade pollution permits to provide a similar mechanism. For a country to be carbon neutral, its output cuts and credits must take net CO2 production to zero.
  3. Who’s trying to be carbon neutral?
    Dozens of countries have announced commitments. In June, the U.K. and France became the first major economies to pass laws requiring net zero carbon emissions. Spain is putting teeth in its plans by selling 47 billion euros ($52 billion) in “green bonds” to finance low-carbon infrastructure. Costa Rica says it will “decarbonize” by 2050 with a package of policies focused on energy and transport. The Carbon Neutrality Coalition, a group of 19 countries formed in 2017 that includes Brazil and Canada, has pledged to go beyond carbon-reduction targets set out in the landmark 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change. (U.S. President Donald Trump has announced plans to withdraw from the Paris accord.) Meanwhile, through the so-called C40 initiative, 94 cities around the world have committed to implementing their own climate action plans.
  4. What’s driving this fight?
    Scientists blame the vast build-up in atmospheric CO2 and other greenhouse gases since the Industrial Revolution for speeding up global warming. They warn that without radical measures to reduce emissions, the fight against climate change will become unwinnable. Despite international efforts to limit carbon output, CO2 pollution is still rising and won’t peak for several more years, according to the International Energy Agency. The amount of climate-damaging CO2 in the atmosphere is likely to reach another record in 2019, driven by growing use of fossil fuels and a decline in planetary forest cover, predicts Britain’s meteorological service, the Met Office.
  5. How will countries reach their goals?
    To get anywhere close to net zero by 2050 — a date embraced by the European Union — the world must invest $2.4 trillion in clean energy every year through 2035 (up from $1.8 trillion spent in 2017 on all forms of energy systems) and stop burning coal almost entirely by the middle of the century, according to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Government policies and local initiatives are needed to trigger changes in transport, infrastructure, land use and how cities are built. Further improvement and development of hitherto uneconomical technologies like carbon capture (also called sequestration) are essential to hit global targets. In short, there’s a lot of work to do.
  6. Is anyone enforcing the rules?
    Not really. There is some oversight built into the Paris Agreement that holds countries accountable if their climate plans aren’t ambitious enough, but nothing is enforceable by law at a global level. Some countries and U.S. states — like Sweden, Hawaii, and California — have enshrined their commitments into legislation, making pledges harder to break. So far, scientists, protesters, NGOs and investors have been the main source of pressure on countries to change and make sure their promises are kept.
  7. Is all of this just talk?
    Any single country can make its own carbon footprint appear smaller by shifting the burden — winding down polluting industries on its own soil and buying the products they make from elsewhere. Likewise, carbon offset programs can be subject to manipulation: If industries buy carbon offsets from another country, there’s no mechanism to guarantee they’re legitimate. Lawmakers can also impose commitments years into the future in the knowledge they’ll be out of office before the deadlines hit. Skeptics call environmental promises rolled out for the sake of good publicity “greenwashing.” European efforts to achieve net zero emissions may receive extra impetus from the incoming European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen; she’s proposing a Green Deal for Europe that will help fund the investment for energy systems and infrastructure that would bring about carbon neutrality.

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