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What the rich countries want to play down in the new climate report

CDR should primarily be the responsibility of those who make the largest amount of emissions per capita and have contributed the most to the stock of atmospheric carbon, namely, the rich countries. (Photo: Bloomberg)Premium
CDR should primarily be the responsibility of those who make the largest amount of emissions per capita and have contributed the most to the stock of atmospheric carbon, namely, the rich countries. (Photo: Bloomberg)

  • India must join the rich world to find technological breakthroughs for cheaper CDR and use captured CO2 as the starting material for useful chemical processes. But India’s primary and immediate responsibility is to change the discourse on climate change, to give CDR the primacy it deserves

The focus on the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has been chiefly from the lens of how the planet is inexorably heating up, way beyond the Paris Accord target of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, and the attendant risks to global populations. The focus must graduate to carbon dioxide removal (CDR).

“All global modelled pathways that limit warming to 1.5°C (>50%) with no or limited overshoot, and those that limit warming to 2°C (>67%) involve rapid and deep and in most cases immediate GHG emission reductions in all sectors. Modelled mitigation strategies to achieve these reductions include transitioning from fossil fuels without CCS to very low- or zero-carbon energy sources, such as renewables or fossil fuels with CCS, demand side measures and improving efficiency, reducing non-CO2 emissions, and deploying carbon dioxide removal (CDR) methods to counterbalance residual GHG emissions."

The above is a paragraph from Part 3 of the IPCC’s Sixth (and latest) Assessment Report, devoted to mitigation, or more specifically, from a summary of the report for policymakers. If this strikes the ordinary reader as impenetrably geeky and jargony, it is not entirely accidental. A rendering of these reports in plain English would elevate carbon dioxide removal (CDR) from an almost incidental tool of resisting climate change, tucked into the tail end of a list of mitigation measures, to the primary one. It would primarily be the responsibility of rich countries, and its purpose would be not so much “to counterbalance residual greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions", as the report insinuates, as to serve as the principal tool of mitigating climate change.

Let us take a look at some data the report also supplies, in particular at the amount of carbon dioxide (from fossil fuel and industrial uses, indicated as CO2FFI, and from land use, land-use change and forestry, dubbed CO2LULUCF) and other GHG emissions the average resident is responsible for, separately by production and by consumption, in each of the world’s regions.

Emission levels.
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Emission levels.

The average South Asian’s emissions are 1.6 tonne, from the point of view of production, and 1.5 tonne, from the point of view of consumption. The comparable figures are 16 tonne and 17 tonne for North America. Europeans, who have comparable standards of living, make do with 6.5 tonne and 7.8 tonne, respectively.

These numbers bring out the stark injustice of sweeping demands for GHG reductions by all nations across the world, regardless of the standard of living achieved, and regardless of the effort made to reduce GHG emissions. These figures do not take into account the historic contributions of different nations and regions to the stock of GHGs in the atmosphere, warming the planet to dangerous levels that melt the icecaps, raise sea levels, warm ocean currents and produce extreme weather events, heatwaves, floods and even snow in the Arabian desert!

GHG reduction should be everyone’s responsibility. That is like every able-bodied citizen firing off shots from their 0.22 air rifles at an invading army of tanks. What the resistance calls for are anti-tank missiles, whose climate-change-fighting equivalent is removing carbon dioxide from the air or CDR.

Who should undertake GHG reduction? Everyone. Who should bear the burden of CDR? That should primarily be the responsibility of those who make the largest amount of emissions per capita and have contributed the most to the stock of atmospheric carbon, namely, the rich countries. It is to obscure this imperative that climate reports put CDR at the tail end of a long list of mitigation efforts. It is the job of countries like India to make CDR the prime tool for mitigating climate change.

At present, the cost of CDR is relatively high. That cost can be reduced by more efficient methods and by retrieving the carbon in usable forms, and as the starting point of producing everything from carbon fibre and graphene to petrochemicals. If atmospheric carbon dioxide can be used to produce plastics, we can keep all the crude in the world strictly underground.

India must join the rich world to find technological breakthroughs for cheaper CDR and use the captured CO2 as the starting material for useful chemical processes. But India’s primary and immediate responsibility is to change the discourse on climate change, to give CDR the primacy it deserves.

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