The climate column

When does ‘zero’ not mean ‘zero’? When it’s greenwashing, of course

Net-zero 2050-ism must not be allowed to give oxygen to the lie that we can continue business-as-usual, without radically changing our lifestyles and economies, writes Donnachadh McCarthy

Sunday 04 July 2021 19:27 BST
Countries like the UK have made big promises about ‘net zero’ targets
Countries like the UK have made big promises about ‘net zero’ targets (Getty/iStock)

When does “zero” not mean “zero”? When an oil corporation, bank or airport are greenwashing with their “net-zero carbon” climate action plans, of course.

There are rising concerns that the phrase “net-zero carbon” has been hijacked and devalued by fossil-fuelled corporations. Thus, it was welcome that the UN’s High Champions on Climate, Nigel Topping and Gonzalo Munoz, staged a debate on the issue at the London Climate Action Week.

A powerful case was made by James Dyke from the Global Systems Institute at Exeter University that net-zero can be a dangerous trap that lulls the public into thinking that real action is being taken to address the emergency.

In fact, what appears to be happening is that many corporations and, in some cases, governments are concealing destructive fossil-fuelled business under the cloak of promises to be net-zero carbon by 2050. He argues they are banking on unproven carbon removal technologies to compensate – in the 2040s – for increasing emissions in the 2020s.

Many international net-zero 2050 plans include proposals for mass burning of trees in power stations, and the capture and storage of the released carbon (CCS). But such bioenergy plants can come with negative impacts on food, water and biodiversity – and CCS is still unproven commercially.

Keeping the temperature rise to under 1.5C using this technique alone would take land estimated to be twice the size of the Indian subcontinent, according to Dyke. Many of these net-zero 2050 plans, would thus require our children to pay for these unproven technologies to remove up to 10 billion tons of CO2 from the atmosphere, every year from 2050 to 2100. CO2 which was actually emitted by us in the 2020s.

Dyke summed up these plans as “burn now and pay later”. He also passionately argued against the intergenerational injustice this represented – and quoted Bristol Airport’s recent (and, in my opinion, farcical) claim to be “net-zero”, by not including the emissions from flights.

He also cited Shell and Barclay’s recent net-zero 2050 plans, which allows them to continue ploughing billions into new fossil fuel investments over the coming decade.

Dyke said current country policies put us on track for a rise of 3C in our children’s lifetimes and claimed that due to the lack of any large current reductions happening, any hope of limiting the rise in temperatures to the agreed target of 1.5C “is over”.

A 6 per cent cut in carbon emissions was needed every year to 2030 to get to the 1.5C target. But 2021 will likely record one of the largest single-year increases in emissions due to the fossil-fuelled economic bounce back from the pandemic.

Whilst renewable energy production is soaring, it is still only providing 25 per cent of all the expansion in global energy consumption, never mind making a dent in current energy consumption, according to Dyke.

Others in the debate cautioned against ditching the concept of “net-zero”, arguing that it provided a framework for decarbonisation.

Nigel Topping called for a separation out of the “good, the bad and the ugly” by civil society, calling out those corporations who are using net-zero to greenwash business as usual. Munoz said that net-zero was “positively leading” many companies around the world to set genuine decarbonisation targets and taking real action.

In answer to a question as to whether Cop26 should implement the International Energy Agency call for an immediate ban on all new fossil fuel investments – which it said was essential to have an even 50 per cent chance of hitting net-zero – Professor Tzeporah Berman from York University said that stopping new fossil fuel exploration was the huge missing piece in international negotiations.

She explained that the Paris Climate Agreement was aimed solely at reducing demand for fossil fuels – but failed completely to address eliminating production. She added that the ban on fossil fuel investments in the global south would require international cooperation, as many of them were expanding oil exploration into precious rainforests, to repay national debts.

But, as more than 80 per cent of planned global investments were in industrialised countries – including the US, UK, Canada, Norway and Australia – it was incumbent on them to lead by closing down all their new fossil fuel exploration and investments.

Berman argued that the fact the ban was not on the Cop26 agenda showed the extent to which the UK government – as president of Cop26 – and other industrial governments were under the sway of lobbying by the fossil fuel corporations, with the UK government ploughing ahead with permits for new onshore and offshore oil and gas.

She added that in Canada the government was pouring more subsidies annually into fracking than into its entire net-zero 2050 plans.

Topping welcomed the ground-breaking report by the International Energy Agency (IEA), and the call for the stopping of exploration for new fossil fuels. He said the climate champions were determined that their Race to Zero initiative must not give a platform for any greenwashing corporations.

Coming away from the debate, I was heartened that some members of the climate community were realising that net-zero was being abused by corporations and that a cross society effort was needed to expose and force them into a genuine decarbonisation process. Net-zero 2050-ism must not be allowed to give oxygen to the lie that we can continue business-as-usual, without radically changing our lifestyles and economies.

But the last word in the debate went to the renowned environmental lawyer and activist Farhana Yamin, who summed up the challenge with this beautifully simple statement: “Our job is to get the fossil fuel industry to get to zero emissions as fast as possible.” Quite.

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