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Residual emissions must be addressed to reach net zero

A recent study published in the journal Nature Climate Change has found that humanity is not on track to avoid the deadliest effects of climate change. 

Study lead author Holly Jean Buck is an assistant professor of Environment and Sustainability at the University at Buffalo. “Our plans are not adequate to meet the goal of limiting the earth’s temperature increase to no more than 1.5℃ by 2050,” said Buck.

The researchers argue that a better understanding of “residual emissions” is essential to achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions.

Residual emissions are those that remain after efforts to eliminate such emissions have been implemented. For example, industries such as agriculture and shipping are likely to continue releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere even with a concerted effort to eliminate all emissions. 

The United Nations’ panel of scientific advisors says that the world must reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions this century to limit the Earth’s temperature increase, and residual emissions would need to be balanced by techniques that remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

The researchers analyzed long-term low-emission strategies submitted by 50 countries and found that only 28 quantified the amount of residual emissions expected by 2050. Buck and her colleagues argue that managing residual emissions is critical to achieving the net-zero goal, and have identified several steps they say are necessary to tackle the problem. 

The first step is to develop clear projections for the amount of residual emissions. The amount, the source, and the type of gas – whether it be carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases – need to be identified so that appropriate offsetting strategies can be developed. 

Such strategies include enhancing existing carbon sinks, which are reservoirs that absorb more carbon from the atmosphere than they release. Naturally occurring carbon sinks include the ocean, forests, and soil.

“We can enhance carbon sinks,” Buck said. “We can plant trees, we can conserve land, we can engineer carbon removal, but it’s not enough to bring us to net-zero by 2050 with these projections of residual emissions.”

The study highlights the importance of residual emissions and the need for greater action to address the issue. According to countries’ long-term strategies, the average level of residual emissions by 2050 will be 18 percent of current emissions, an amount that cannot easily be offset by removing carbon. Buck and her collaborators stress the need for urgent action to address the problem of residual emissions if we are to limit the deadly effects of climate change.

Residual emissions present another challenge that needs to be addressed, specifically in terms of the approach to achieving net-zero emissions. The question is whether it is a provisional target that will be revised with further emission cuts or a permanent solution that requires ongoing offsetting. 

While some carbon-emitting activities, like aviation and shipping, are recognized as being extremely difficult to reduce, others may be technically achievable but present economic and political hurdles. By clarifying these issues, a solid foundation is established for incorporating residual emissions into plans to attain net-zero emissions by 2050.

What exactly is the net-zero emissions goal?

The net-zero emissions goal is an ambitious and critical target for combating climate change. It involves reducing greenhouse gas emissions as much as possible and offsetting any remaining emissions by removing an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. This will lead to a balance between the amount of greenhouse gases emitted and removed, resulting in a net-zero emissions scenario.

The net-zero emissions goal is crucial because greenhouse gas emissions are the primary cause of climate change. The Earth’s temperature has already risen by approximately 1.1 degrees Celsius since pre-industrial times, and the impact of this warming is already being felt in the form of more frequent and severe weather events, rising sea levels, and changing ecosystems.

To achieve the net-zero emissions goal, countries and companies will need to implement a range of strategies, including reducing energy consumption, transitioning to clean energy sources such as wind and solar power, investing in energy efficiency, and increasing the use of electric vehicles. They will also need to explore and implement innovative solutions, such as carbon capture and storage, to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.

While achieving net-zero emissions will require significant effort and investment, the benefits are enormous. By limiting global warming to below 1.5 degrees Celsius, we can protect vulnerable ecosystems, reduce the frequency and severity of extreme weather events, and safeguard the health and well-being of people and wildlife.

The net-zero emissions goal is not just an environmental issue but also an economic one. Countries and companies that embrace the transition to clean energy and low-carbon practices will benefit from reduced energy costs, increased energy security, and job creation in the renewable energy sector.

What happens if the “net-zero” goal isn’t met?

“More frequent floods,” said Buck. “Devastating heat waves. Extreme economic damage from extreme weather. Agricultural production will be affected.”

While the article identifies significant challenges to reducing residual emissions, it identifies those challenges as opportunities for research and cooperation. “We hope to affect policy makers and non-government organizations that are working to achieve net zero,” said Buck. “We can achieve it. I’m hopeful we will.”

In summary, the net-zero emissions goal is an essential and achievable target that will require collective action and innovative solutions to combat climate change effectively. By working together, we can ensure a sustainable and prosperous future for generations to come.


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