By Chris Lang
Net zero is the latest climate craze. According to Net-Zero Tracker run by the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, two countries have already achieved net zero, six countries have net zero targets in law, five countries and the EU have proposed legislation, 20 countries have net zero in a policy document, and 98 countries have a net zero target under discussion.
And 160 firms with US$70 trillion in assets have jointed the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero.
Net zero is not zero
But net zero is yet another illusion aimed at giving the impression of taking action on the climate crisis, while in fact doing as little as possible to change business as usual. Setting net zero targets for several decades in the future is a distraction from the urgent need for governments to find ways to leave fossil fuels underground now.
And net zero is not zero. A report published in 2020 by Action Aid, Corporate Accountability, Friends of the Earth International, Global Campaign to Demand Climate Justice, Third World Network, and WhatNext? notes that,
Far from signifying climate ambition, the phrase “net zero” is being used by a majority of polluting governments and corporations to evade responsibility, shift burdens, disguise climate inaction, and in some cases even to scale up fossil fuel extraction, burning and emissions. The term is used to greenwash business-as-usual or even business-more-than-usual. At the core of these pledges are small and distant targets that require no action for decades, and promises of technologies that are unlikely ever to work at scale, and which are likely to cause huge harm if they come to pass.
In April 2021, three academics – James Dyke (University of Exeter), Robert Watson (University of East Anglia) and Wolfgang Knorr (Lund University) – published a detailed look at net zero. They describe net zero as a “dangerous trap” that “helps perpetuate a belief in technological salvation and diminishes the sense of urgency surrounding the need to curb emissions now”.
We have arrived at the painful realisation that the idea of net zero has licensed a recklessly cavalier “burn now, pay later” approach which has seen carbon emissions continue to soar. It has also hastened the destruction of the natural world by increasing deforestation today, and greatly increases the risk of further devastation in the future.
And in June 2021, Corporate Accountability, the Global Forest Coalition, and Friends of the Earth International, published a report titled “The Big Con: How Big Polluters Are Advancing a ‘Net Zero’ Climate Agenda to Delay, Deceive, and Deny”.
Big Polluters are responding with the same tricks they have used as part of a decades-long campaign that involves greenwashing themselves as the solution on one hand and deceiving the public while delaying real action on the other. Instead of offering meaningful real solutions to justly address the crisis they knowingly created and owning up to their responsibility to act beginning with drastically reducing emissions at source, polluting corporations and governments are advancing “net zero” plans that require little or nothing in the way of real solutions or real effective emissions cuts. Furthermore, and as this report helps illustrate, they see the potential for a “net zero” global pathway to provide new business opportunities for them, rather than curtailing production and consumption of their polluting products.
There is no net zero!
Recently Graeme Maxton, climate change economist and author wrote a short piece explaining why net zero is nonsense.
Climate people! There is no net zero!
I get the basic maths. If you have something, and you offset it with negative something, you have nothing. If all those damaging climate emissions can be cancelled-out with ‘negative climate emissions’ the party can continue. Only this is a fantasy. There is no way societies can offset carbon emissions in the time left, even with John Kerry’s magic beans.
First, let’s look at the target. To avoid catastrophic and unstoppable climate change, societies need to keep the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere below 450 parts per million (ppm). If humanity breaches that level it sets off a series of chain reactions which will make most of the planet uninhabitable, with large parts it unlivable by 2050.
In May 2021, the concentration hit 420 ppm. That’s nearly 4 ppm higher than the year before. So, it’s really very simple. If we keep on generating emissions at the current rate, it’s game over in less than eight years – 2029.
That’s a bit of a worry, when there are no serious plans for countries to cut emissions until 2030.
It also means that setting a carbon neutral date – a net zero target – of 2050 is a complete waste of time. It’s too late.
Yet that is what the world is doing.
I strongly suspect those spouting this net-zero nonsense know all this. What they are doing is greenwashing, telling people who don’t understand how serious the situation is that there are tough emissions targets, and though these are far off in the future, and those making them will be long retired by then, there is the appearance of action and so no need for any change now.
Planting trees is a popular way to meet these targets. The most ambitious reforestation plans suggest that trees could remove 200 gigatonnes of carbon from the atmosphere in 50 to 100 years. To put that in context, annual equivalent carbon emissions (that is, accounting for the other main greenhouse gases as well as CO2) are just over 40 gigatonnes. So all those trees could absorb five times today’s carbon emissions, which is really good, but 75 years too late. Trees also have an irritating habit of dying, or burning when they get too hot, and releasing all the carbon they’ve stored back into the atmosphere.
Trees store carbon for a while, and then release it. That’s what I call net zero.
Dream big not small
All those seemingly dramatic claims by big corporates are drops in the ocean too. Shell wants to offset 120 m tonnes of emissions by 2030(!). Nestle wants to cancel 13 m tonnes and (wow) make KitKats carbon neutral by 2025. BA says 10% of its flights will be carbon-neutral by 2030, while the shipping industry brazenly admits it will actually increase emissions in the next ten years.
Combined, these (not even vaguely) ambitious goals will have almost zero effect on global emissions.
The 40+ gigatonnes of emissions generated today come from a bewildering array of man-made sources, from buildings and vehicles, to cement production and deforestation. To slow the pace of climate change societies need to cut these emissions to ACTUAL zero as fast as possible – regardless of the cost.
Then they have to invest in new technologies (John Kerry’s magic beans) to try and offset the additional ONE gigatonne of emissions that are now being released each year AS A RESULT of human activities – from the wildfires around the world, from under the warming oceans and from melting permafrost, for example.
To do this, societies will have to build HUNDREDS of carbon capture plants and run them at full blast for more than century to bring the atmosphere into better equilibrium. And, even then, even having done all that, they will have maybe a 50:50 chance of avoiding the worst.
Forget net zero, climate people. Just as you can’t offset a 20-a-day smoking habit with 20 minutes on a treadmill, you can’t cancel 40+ Gt of CO2 emissions each year by planting a few saplings next week.
Societies need to embrace radical change if they are to avoid a climate catastrophe, or there is no point in making any change at all.