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What is behind the goal of carbon neutrality in 2050, which is supposed to save us from disaster?

France is “late” in its climate objectives and in achieving carbon neutrality by 2050, noted the High Climate Council by examining the text of the Climate and Resilience Bill, debated in the Assembly from Monday, March 29. For NGOs and other observers of climate policies, the commitments made by France – as well as by the international community as a whole As it stands, it will not be enough to limit the rise in temperatures to 1.5 ° C or even 2 ° C compared to the pre-industrial era. It is also this observation which constitutes the watchword of the demonstrations organized throughout France on Sunday.

Full of promises, the notion of carbon neutrality arouses the support of everyone, from the greenest governments to the generally most reluctant industries. But are States, companies and communities ready to initiate this revolution towards a less consuming society? Back to a common goal that looks like a magic formula.

What is carbon neutrality ?

Shaped by scientists from the International Group of Experts on the Climate (IPCC), the notion of carbon neutrality spread widely after 2015 and the signing of the Paris Agreement by 195 countries. Its article 4 (link in PDF) states that in order to keep the temperature rise below 2 ° C (and preferably 1.5 ° C) compared to the pre-industrial era, each country must “achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and anthropogenic removals by sinks of greenhouse gases during the second half of the century (…).” To put it simply: we therefore call “carbon neutrality” the fact of not emitting more greenhouse gases (mostly carbon dioxide, or CO2, and, to a lesser extent, methane, nitrous oxide …) Than what the planet can absorb.

Nature is capable of taking charge of transforming part of the CO2 itself, thanks to forests and oceans in particular. But we produce so many greenhouse gases that these “natural sinks” are not enough to restore the balance. Carbon dioxide is therefore accumulating to record levels in the atmosphere, causing temperatures to rise rapidly.

In 2019, humanity produced 36.4 billion tonnes (or gigatons) of CO2, according to the specialized website Global carbon project (link in English). Oceans and terrestrial sinks are estimated to sequester around 9.5 and 11 gigatons of CO2 per year, respectively. (link in PDF). We must therefore both reduce our emissions and find a way to absorb this (large) surplus of greenhouse gases by 2050, otherwise the 2 ° C will be greatly exceeded – and irreversibly. within the allotted time. Simple, right?

Why is it more complicated?

In reality, it is first necessary to agree on what we consider to be emissions “released” and emissions “captured“, notes Maxime Combes, economist and spokesperson for the Attac association. According to him, the definition of the objective as it appears in the Paris agreement leaves many questions unanswered, opening the door to interpretations different from country to country. Over 60% of our carbon footprint is linked to the products we import. These emissions are not released on the national territory. Are we taking this into account in our national goal of carbon neutrality? he asks as an example. And if a large part of our emissions are linked to products that we import from China, who is responsible for destroying a forest to build the factory that was used for production? “

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An analysis shared by Anne Bringault, operations coordinator at the Climate Action Network.

“France aims for carbon neutrality in 2050, but it does not include international transport emissions in this calculation. If all countries do the same, the objective of neutrality on a global scale cannot be achieved, even if states meet their objectives. “

Anne Bringault, coordinator of the Climate Action Network

to franceinfo

Finally, if carbon dioxide is the main greenhouse gas, it is not the only one. However, the concept of carbon neutrality may or may not include these other gases, depending on the case and the country. EU countries are targeting all greenhouse gases, while the Chinese plan only targets CO2 emissions. To put this definition in order, a draft standard is also underway at the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), at the initiative of the United Kingdom, according to the French Standardization Association (Afnor). .

Who is committed to carbon neutrality by 2050?

Everyone, or almost. In 2019, the European Union as a whole officially endorsed this ambition. United Kingdom, Japan, players in the European aviation sector, Total, the Lille metropolitan area, Arcelor-Mittal, the city of Paris, the automotive supplier Valeo, Nissan, CNP Assurances, the Italian energy giant ENI, Saint-Gobain, etc. In recent months, not a week has gone by without a State, an administration, a community or a company announcing its support for this popular objective.

So much so that at the start of 2021, countries representing more than 65% of global carbon dioxide emissions and more than 70% of the world economy will have made a commitment to achieve net zero emissions by the middle of the 21st century “, rejoiced in December the Secretary General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, on the occasion of the 5th anniversary of the adoption of the Paris Agreement.

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Gone are the short, medium and long-term global objectives, as they were previously defined, as in the Kyoto protocol (signed in 1997 and entered into force in 2005). The arrival of the concept of carbon neutrality has enabled a fundamental revolution in the way in which the international community manages the climate emergency. Or rather, “a geopolitical magic trick”, to use the expression used by Maxime Combes, for whom “we dropped the emission reduction targets quantified at eight, twelve, fifteen, twenty years, to replace them with a very long-term objective with regard to what climate policies should be “.

2050, isn’t it a bit far?

Behind a laudable intention and an end goal “which remains more ambitious than what was on the table before the Paris agreement”, the problem, believes Maxime Combes, is that this notion rest “a promise on the future that dilutes short-term goals”. A vagueness no doubt not unrelated to the almost unanimous adoption of this commitment, the vagueness of which introduces greater room for maneuver for anyone who still intends to postpone the effort.

“But now is the time to make the greatest efforts and reduce emissions, emphasizes the economist. CWhat matters is not the greenhouse gas emissions that we will emit in 2050, it is the stock that we are building up in the atmosphere with the emissions that we are now releasing, between today ‘hui and 2050. ”

Concretely, what can be done to get there?

There are several ways to achieve carbon neutrality. But not all are created equal, explains Anne Bringault. NGOs fear that this ambition will create the bed of false good ideas.

“There is a path that consists in saying that we will continue to emit as many greenhouse gases as we do today, but that does not matter because we will develop technologies for carbon capture and storage. . “

Anne Bringault, coordinator of the Climate Action Network

to franceinfo

Except that “These technologies do not exist today at the industrial level. They have a pharaonic cost and can present risks”, she lists, pleading for the effort to be focused as a priority on a drastic reduction in emissions.

But it is still necessary that the ambitions of reducing greenhouse gases be up to the target: in 2020, the IPCC announced that the commitments made by the signatory countries of the Paris Agreement lead us towards an increase of more than 3 ° C, far from the 1.5 °C or 2 ° C expected. Worse: even insufficient, these commitments are not respected, Anne Bringault. Of course, France published its National Low Carbon Strategy in 2019, a roadmap that outlines the path to take, year by year, to achieve neutrality. Reduction of traffic and recourse to less polluting vehicles, insulation of housing to reduce energy consumption… Everything is there, in detail. “The problem is that we don’t follow her”, notes the environmental activist.

And is there any point in compensating by planting trees?

With this concept of carbon neutrality to be achieved, reducing emissions has become a tool – essential, of course. among others to counter global warming. Compensation appears to be a solution for states wishing to restore a balance between emissions and absorption: on paper, you can decide to plant a forest in China or finance a renewable energy project in Uganda to compensate for a surplus of energy. ’emissions in France. Objective: to create “negative emissions”.

This solution has a major flaw: timing. To illustrate this, Maxime Combes takes the example of a Paris-Marseille flight, presented as “carbon offset” by Air France: “The emissions that you are going to help put out are released immediately by the plane on which you are traveling. If the company plants a tree to compensate, it will only be able to do this work in 15 years, by the time it reaches maturity., he explains. You create an equivalence between an immediate emission and a possible carbon capture over several years, and this, while you are not sure whether it is an ad vitam æternam capture “, because the forest in question can be destroyed.

On this point, the climatologist Valérie Masson-Delmotte had pinned the communication of Air France in July, on Twitter. If the tree planted “is used for construction, then the CO2 is stored for a long period, if it is cut, for heating for example, then it releases its CO2. And if we cut without replanting, the benefit is quickly lost”, she explained. “We need [les transporteurs aériens] keep moving in the right direction [et] invest in research and development to reduce their impact on the environment “, noted the climatologist at the time, keeping in mind that the company owns one of the fleets “among the most energy efficient”. In the process, Air France corrected the entry in its search engine: instead of “CO2 neutral flight”, she now talks about “vol with offset CO2 emissions “.

Anne Bringault also warns against a dishonest use of the concept, pointing out the temptation for companies which display the ambition “carbon neutral” to buy carbon “credits” without fully engaging the revolution towards a model less consuming in fossil fuels .

Finally, display carbon neutrality objectives “does not make much sense at the scale of a community or a company: for example, it would be necessary to cover two thirds of the Ile-de-France with forests to offset the residual emissions of the city of Paris”, she notes. Likewise, not all companies and countries in the world can rely on compensation. Unless you cover the globe with a vast taiga …

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