Achieving carbon net zero: What is the fuss all about?

When these fossil fuels burn, they release greenhouse gases – mostly carbon dioxide. These gases trap the sun's heat and cause the planet's temperature to rise. [iStockphoto]

Throughout 2022 and the beginning of 2023, climate change impacts have intensified in Africa and across the globe. We saw catastrophic floods in Pakistan and Nigeria, and cyclone Freddy affecting Malawi Mozambique, and Madagascar.

A multilayer drought is still a threat in the horn of Africa including Kenya, where more than 4.2 million Kenyans have been affected. Heat waves and wildfires across the northern hemisphere have also caused a huge disruption.

As the world keeps getting warmer, intergovernmental panel on climate change (IPCC) reports suggest that countries need to reduce carbon emissions to avert the climate change impacts.

The rapid climate change we are now experiencing is caused by humans using oil, gas, and coal for their homes, factories, and transport which release greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane which then makes the earth warmer

When these fossil fuels burn, they release greenhouse gases – mostly carbon dioxide. These gases trap the sun's heat and cause the planet's temperature to rise.

Earth is now about 1.1 degrees Celsius warmer than it was in the 19th century and the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen by 50 percent. 

Why carbon net zero?

The term net zero means achieving a balance between the carbon emitted into the atmosphere, and the carbon removed from it. This balance or net zero will happen when the amount of carbon we add to the atmosphere is not more than the amount removed.

More than 190 countries signed the Paris Agreement on climate change, which calls for keeping the global temperature at 1.5 degrees C above pre-industrial era levels. Scientists say if temperatures keep rising beyond 1.5 degrees it will be a threat to people's lives and livelihoods

Achieving carbon net zero by 2050 is the goal.

Philip Thigo a technology and policy expert at Thunderbird School says climate change has stopped being an environmental issue but it’s now affecting the core of our development. 

“The discussion now is how do we limit our footprint in a way that does not affect the climate and prevent the temperatures rising beyond our existence,” says Thigo.

The world needs to decrease fossil fuel production by roughly 6 per cent per year between 2020 and 2030. [iStockphoto]

“For everything we do especially in industrialization should be very much mitigated by limiting emissions.” 

According to the intergovernmental panel on climate change (IPCC) report released in late March, it says the world temperature needs to come down, as greenhouse gas emissions are projected to go above 1.5 degrees Celsius between the years 2030 and 2035 or even beyond, hence increasing global warming.

“Now we know that the planet is warming anyway, as much as we want to limit carbon-dioxide emissions, we now must think of removing it,” adds Thigo.

To keep temperatures within the 1.5°c limit, carbon-dioxide emissions need to be reduced by at least 43 percent by 2030, and at least 60 percent by 2035. While speaking at the 3rd regional symposium on greening judiciaries in Africa, President William Ruto said countries have no option but to go green

“Do we continue with the fossil-powered industrialization, which is destroying our globe with disastrous effects or do we go green?” Posed President William Ruto

Governments agreed at last year's Cop 27, climate summit in Egypt to create a fund to help pay for the damage that a warming planet is inflicting on vulnerable countries, but failed to commit to new measures for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Africa is the least emitting country but bears the most burden of climate change.

Experts also want political will when it comes to carbon net zero, with even President Ruto asking the top emitters to compensate African countries in the last Cop 27 meeting in Sharm El Sheikh.

“Governments should put laws and limits on how much they emit and countries that emit more need to compensate and work with countries that emit less and that’s why we need to keep the conversation about loss and damage”

According to the UNEP Emission Gap Report 2022, the top seven emitters in the world are China, the USA, India, European Union, Russia, and Brazil they account they accounted for about half of the global greenhouse gas emissions in 2020

Reducing carbon emissions according to Thigo is not a one-off, everyone has to change their cooking technology, embrace electrical vehicles and change how we live and work and respect the planet.

“One we have to mitigate our footprints, we have to restore our environment by planting more trees, and push our industries to embrace green energy by leveraging on available technology.”

“When we talk about carbon removal, do we have safer technologies that can remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere” 

Greenhouse gas emissions are projected to go above 1.5 degrees Celsius between the years 2030 and 2035. [iStockphoto]

How to move to carbon net zero

Achieving net zero requires a two-part approach: First and foremost, human-caused emissions (such as those from fossil-fueled vehicles and factories) should be reduced as close to zero as possible. Any remaining emissions should then be balanced with an equivalent amount of carbon removal, which can happen through natural approaches like restoring forests or through technologies like direct air capture and storage (DACS), which scrubs carbon directly from the atmosphere

Among other measures to ensure energy systems are net-zero carbon emitters, a substantial reduction in overall fossil fuel use, minimal use of unabated fossil fuels, and use of Co2 capture and storage in the remaining fossil fuel systems and energy conservation, are part of the solutions fronted to reduce global warming. 

To avoid the worst of warming (maximum 1.5°C rise), the world will need to decrease fossil fuel production by roughly 6 percent per year between 2020 and 2030. 

Other harmful emissions come from agriculture, livestock produces significant levels of methane, a greenhouse gas. These could be reduced drastically if people eat less meat and more plant-based foods.

On a personal level, individuals ought to move from single-use products to sustainable, reusable products, recycle, and switch to renewable energy like geothermal, solar, wind, hydro, and biomass energy. 

Health benefits of reducing Co2 in the atmosphere

The World Health Organization projects that heat exposure caused by increased temperatures will be the largest health impact of climate change.

Reducing carbon emissions goes a long way in improving the public health of everyone. Experts say Asthma and respiratory diseases will reduce as there will be less concentration of pollen grains in the atmosphere to amplify allergies that will lead to respiratory conditions. People will also not suffer from the effects of heat and extreme weather conditions, no nutrition issues and foodborne diseases, waterborne diseases, zoonotic diseases, and even mental health diseases as they are exacerbated by extreme weather like where people get stressed after being displaced due to floods.

The healthcare system would reap a huge economic benefit from reducing carbon footprints.