A top Indian official erupted at a climate summit this week, demanding rich nations like the United States not only stop pumping planet-heating emissions into the atmosphere but start removing the cumulative pollution already fueling hotter temperatures, deadlier storms and flooding.
Broadcasting into Wednesday’s International Energy Agency-United Nations conference on reaching net-zero emissions, Indian energy minister Raj Kumar Singh rebuked developed countries for using up 80% of the world’s carbon budget. That, he said, leaves little room for billions across Africa, Asia and Latin America to follow the same path to prosperity.
Singh argued the answer is for richer countries to start outlining plans to clean up carbon dioxide, which accumulates and remains in the atmosphere for centuries.
“I believe that it’s important for all the developed countries to talk about, not net zero, but about removing more carbon from the atmosphere than they are adding — net negative is what they need to talk about,” Singh said. “And they need to tell us what they will do by 2030.”
The roughly 10-minute speech ― made to peers such as U.S. climate czar John Kerry, European Union climate minister Frans Timmermans, and Chinese energy chief Zhang Jianhua ― marked something of a turning point in climate politics. Developing countries whose emissions will determine the climate future have long pressed the U.S. and Europe, whose wealth traces back to colonizing swaths of Africa, Asia and the Americas, for more money and aid to slash emissions. But to date no high-ranking officials have demanded those rich countries clean up the carbon they spewed unchecked for over a century.
“A statement this direct about the need for negative emissions and addressing who might be responsible for it has not been made in a forum like this before by such a senior person,” said Michael Thompson, an expert in carbon removal policy at Carnegie Climate Governance Initiative who previously worked in New Delhi. “India’s comments in this setting may bring other countries, particularly developing countries, to the table.”
The Ever-Shrinking Carbon Budget
Global climate negotiations have largely centered on how to stop increasing the output of greenhouse gas pollution. With the exception of 2020, when pandemic-induced lockdowns halted factories and kept cars off the road, emissions have grown steadily over the past few decades and are set to rise again this year as economies reopen and countries scramble to make up for lost profits. Half of all emissions added to the atmosphere since industrialization kicked off in 1751 came after 1990, when governments understood the effects of global warming.
The planet is already 1.1 degrees Celsius warmer than pre-industrial averages. The 2015 Paris climate accord marked the first global agreement to slash emissions and to try to keep that temperature rise from exceeding 1.5 degrees, beyond which the effects on coastal cities, food systems and nature are forecast to be catastrophic.
In recent years, some countries have begun to make progress. The U.S., the world’s No. 2 source of emissions and historically the top emitter, elected President Joe Biden, who has started outlining plans to eliminate emissions from the power sector by 2035 and electrify the country’s 276 million automobiles. China, today’s top emitter, vowed to reach carbon neutrality by 2060, and over the past month intensified its domestic political mandates to peak emissions this decade. The European Union has made significant strides to green its post-pandemic spending, while the United Kingdom, fresh from exiting the bloc, is ramping up renewable energy and climate research.
“We should be wary about climate politics becoming too future-focused,” Aarti Gupta, a professor of global environmental governance at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, said in an email. “It’s too easy for the historically largest emitters to say: let’s not look back; let’s collectively look to the (far) future.”
Removing carbon dioxide is absolutely necessary. Even the most optimistic scenarios, where countries pursue aggressive renewable, electrification and energy efficiency goals, reduce air travel, and replace 80% of meat and eggs with cultivated alternatives, require at least 400 gigatons of carbon dioxide be removed from the atmosphere, according to a 2018 study in the journal Environmental Research Letters. The rate and volume of carbon removal needed to keep warming in check varies by model and is the subject of some debate among researchers. But most suggest the world should remove roughly 6 gigatons of CO2 per year by midcentury.
Technology Vs. Trees
There is fiery debate among advocates and researchers over how best to remove carbon from the atmosphere.
Trees are one popular method. Woody flora suck in prodigious amounts of carbon as part of photosynthesis, making forests what are generally known as “carbon sinks.” This, for example, is why preserving the Amazon rainforest or the northern boreal forest intact is widely considered such a vital and practical goal for staving off climate disaster. One 2019 study in the journal Science found planting new trees across an area the size of the United States could slash the CO2 in the atmosphere by a whopping 25%.
But that raises some big issues in practice. Between 2000 and 2014, foreign governments and corporations took control of some 500 million acres in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean as part of deals to conserve land to offset carbon emissions, and in doing so forced native peoples off their lands in what was dubbed “cultural genocide.” In 2014, the Journal of Rural Studies called the practice “carbon colonialism.”
“The speed and direction of deployment of these technologies can’t be up to private industries, can’t be up to Chevron, and can’t be up to Exxon. We need public management and non-market control.”
Government programs to pay private landowners to plant trees can provide perverse incentives to cash in by destroying existing forests, then planting new trees over them. Mexico’s scheme to pay farmers $213 per month to reforest over 1 million hectares of degraded land and grow more than 1 billion trees by the end of this year caused, by one estimate, the loss of nearly 73,000 hectares of forest coverage in 2019, according to a Bloomberg Green report.
Then there’s the issue of increased wildfires and the spread of tree-killing diseases and parasites, which could wipe out decades of carbon removal in one swoop.
Other forms of carbon removal, such as soil-management practices that are gaining traction with farmers, remain uncertain, despite holding other benefits for resiliency against extreme weather and the nutritional value of the food grown using them.
That has fueled growing calls for technological solutions to pull carbon from the air. The leading technology so far is called direct air capture, essentially giant vacuum fans that suck carbon from the air and magnetically attach it to calcium or potassium molecules, transforming the emissions into a substance that can be injected underground for permanent storage, to prevent its return to the atmosphere.
It’s a controversial gambit. The machines require huge amounts of electricity and could, if relied on to meet climate goals at scale, sap a full quarter of the world’s energy supply by the end of this century, according to a 2019 paper in the journal Nature Communications. Spending $1 trillion per year on the technology could help deploy it at scale and work out the kinks to make it cheaper and less energy intensive, a Nature study published in January found. But the Biden administration set aside just a fraction of that amount for all its climate efforts over the next eight years as part of its $2 trillion infrastructure package unveiled this week, meaning such a bid would be an extremely difficult political sell.
The White House’s proposal included a call for Congress to amend the so-called 45Q tax credit that currently funds carbon capture projects to encourage more direct air capture investments. At the moment, that federal tax credit primarily benefits retrofits that catch CO2 at power plants and industrial factories and turn the gas into a substance that can either be stored or, as is more often the case, injected into nearly exhausted oil wells to obtain the dregs of crude. The price fetched selling that oil offsets the cost of capturing the CO2.
That, at present, does nothing to reverse the damage from climate change, but few other financial incentives exist for direct air capture. The two companies that currently produce the machines ― Carbon Engineering, based in Canada, and Climeworks, headquartered in Switzerland ― work with major polluters. Carbon Engineering took money from oil giant Occidental Petroleum. Climeworks struck a deal to supply the Coca-Cola Co., the world’s biggest source of plastic pollution, with CO2 for beverage carbonation.
“If we want to actually deploy carbon removal in a justice-oriented way, it can’t continue to be governed by the fossil fuel industry,” said Andrew Bergman, a doctoral student in applied physics at Harvard University who recently co-authored a primer on carbon removal science and policy.
Instead, said Georgetown University political philosopher Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò, the U.S. should set up a publicly run and managed carbon removal program as part of a much broader decarbonization effort, and include systems for local oversight.
“The speed and direction of deployment of these technologies can’t be up to private industries, can’t be up to Chevron, and can’t be up to Exxon,” Táíwò said, referring to the two largest U.S. oil companies. “We need public management and non-market control.”
Such efforts could, as University at Buffalo researcher Holly Jean Buck put it, “decolonize the atmosphere.”
It remains unclear whether Singh’s statement ultimately marks a fundamental shift on India’s climate negotiating position or a rift within Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration.
Despite building more solar, India was courting private investment to open 41 new coal mines as recently as last summer. Then, last fall, Singh himself announced plans to replace 29 coal plants scheduled to retire in the coming years entirely with renewables. But this Thursday, the government put out a notice delaying the deadline by which coal-fired plants need to adopt new emissions standards by three years.
“There is ZERO evidence thus far that India is taking meaningful actions to rethink its development trajectory, so that it can focus on poverty alleviation and human development needs of its poor, while trying to rein-in the emissions of the richest 10%,” said Prakash Kashwan, a political scientist and climate policy expert at the University of Connecticut. “On the contrary, the government’s actions on the environmental front seem driven by the present government’s intent to serve the crony capitalist regime that funds the obscenely expensive election campaigns of the ruling party.”
Singh suggested India and other developing countries should not be forced to cut their emissions to zero.
In doing so, it could seek to position itself at the forefront of a new bloc of nations caught in what increasingly looks like a cold war between the U.S. and China. The world’s two largest national emitters and biggest economies joined together in 2014 in what was known as the Group of Two carbon superpowers to agree to cut emissions, setting the stage for the Paris agreement the next year. But so-called G-2 talks sidelined India, which, despite being the world’s third-largest emitter, has grown at a much slower pace than China and occupied a different role in foreign policy circles as a closer ally of the U.S.
Singh did not call out China by name in his speech. But he referred at one point to a 2060 net-zero target ― the deadline by which China agreed to zero out its emissions, a decade later than most countries in the West. That signaled he could be lumping China in alongside other developed countries and is seeking to place India as the largest and most powerful advocate for the rest of the world.
“The U.S.-China conflict is going to continue to intensify for years to come, and other countries, particularly in the Global South, are going to be under pressure from both sides to choose who they are with,” said Tobita Chow, an advocate for progressive U.S. engagement toward China and the director of the nonprofit Justice Is Global. “You’re going to have a set of countries trying to carve out a space that’s independent of that pressure to choose a side. Whether or not that’s what India is after right now is something to look out for.”
It’s a message that could appeal to countries like Mozambique, which generates relatively little income from fossil fuels yet suffered devastating back-to-back cyclones in 2019 that were widely seen as a glimpse of a brutal climate future. Nearly half of Mozambique’s population lives in poverty and less than 25% have access to electricity, according to U.N. statistics.
Countries across Africa, Singh said, “need to develop.”
“That development will require consumption of steel in huge quantities. That development will require consumption of cement in huge quantities. They also want to build skyscrapers. They also want a higher standard of living for their people,” he said, thrusting his hands in the air. “And you can’t stop it because you have already occupied so much carbon space.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly referred to 400 billion gigatons of carbon dioxide in one instance. The correct figure is 400 gigatons.