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Home / Opinion / Views /  Time to set ourselves a carbon-neutrality goal

The covid pandemic ought to have taught us a thing or two about a peculiar kind of risk, one that takes a while after detection to reach a take-off point and then wreaks havoc all around. It may be harder to picture, but on a scale of time that spans centuries, climate change is tracing a similar path: We’re staring at an upshoot, except that this crisis can be forced to plateau at best, not dip, and will clearly be catastrophic for the only liveable planet we know of. Carbon emissions are slowly turning our globe into a gas chamber of trapped heat. Signs of a looming ecological disaster have gotten clearer and look set to multiply faster than we can handle. Weather patterns have been in the grip of a shake-up that seems to have intensified over the past few years, with literal effects in the Himalayas. For once, we can sense the stability of life on earth at threat. How far gone are we? And will we be able to bend this curve?

Case scenarios of the earth’s gradual but relentless heating vary by how well we unite to intervene against it, but have thankfully grown less fuzzy. Right now, our average mercury reading is at least 1.2° Celsius higher than it was before the debut of industrial exhaust, the fallout of an age that saw the West steam ahead, taming one form of energy after another, with the rest in catch-up mode also spewing out tonnes of carbon in a great big quest for modern comforts that must clean itself up before it gets too late. On our current trajectory, by an estimate of the Climate Action Tracker, we are on course for an average of almost 3° Celsius more than the pre-industrial level by century-end. Recent studies suggest that apart from Arctic countries, our subcontinent would bear the brunt of it, be it crop distortion or sea elevation, the survival of species or the ‘wet bulb’ misery of extra-humid heat. In this no-further-action scenario, we may even be exposed to temperatures a degree or two above 3°. To avert horror, the global mean must go no more than a third of a degree higher than it already has. However, even if carbon belches are muzzled exactly as pledged six years ago by countries that signed a pact in Paris aimed at keeping the rise to “well below 2° Celsius" above the pre-industrial baseline, there is very little hope of that. Even a cap of 2° would require post-Paris commitments to be met, too. Just this year, two major avowals were made. America gave up its ostrich stance to say it will go carbon neutral by 2050 and China declared its goal to do likewise by 2060. The biggest carbon addicts of the West and East have thus sworn not to add any further oven-knob gases to our air after that. According to climate trackers, this means that our Paris target of 2° has finally begun to look doable, with a 3° roast-case reduced to a tail-risk outcome if all promises are kept. Sadly, though, we’d still overshoot our 1.5° danger mark by half a degree Celsius.

As a major emitter with an outsized stake in a lower heat cap than cooler countries seem able to bear, India must set itself a carbon-neutrality date, too. Regardless of who is to blame for our condition, the past must never hold the future hostage: For all the climate action we’ve taken, we still need a firm target from which quotas can be derived for a carbon market of our own. China, which launched a national one recently, has emission permits trading at some $8 per tonne. We need price discovery, too. Let’s move swiftly on a cap-and-trade exchange.

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