The ‘net zero’ myth

Setting ‘net-zero’ goals will not help us rein in global warming.

Demonstrators hold up signs during a protest as the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) takes place, in Glasgow, Scotland on November 6, 2021 [Reuters/Hannah McKay]

Earlier this month, the world’s leaders got together to small talk about the weather and to big talk about the climate at the 26th edition of the UN’s climate change conference (COP26) in Glasgow. On the sidelines, activists (myself included) campaigned to persuade governments to replace platitudes with attitude, inaction with action.

Nevertheless, the hot air and greenwashing were plentiful, with delegates with ties to fossil fuel companies outnumbering even the largest country delegation. In the pavilion section, greenwashing came from the nuclear industry, representatives of which in banana suits claimed that living near nuclear power stations was as safe as eating a banana, as well as from major coal producers like Australia, and major oil producers such as the Gulf states, each of whom had a gigantic stand.

In the closing plenary, minister after minister urged consensus and collective action for the sake of their children or grandchildren and the future of humanity. However, despite the platitudes, rich countries, from the United States to EU states, showed little appetite to downscale their lifestyles and emerging economic powerhouses, such as China and India, exhibited little willingness to clean up their reliance on coal and other dirty fossil fuels.

This left low-income countries and island states feeling a profound sense of betrayal. This was eloquently expressed by Shauna Aminath, the environment minister of the low-lying Maldives, which could become uninhabitable by 2050 and possibly vanish from the map by the turn of the century, while its vital coral reef is dying off at an alarming rate.

“[This is] yet another conversation where we put our homes on the line, while those who have other options decide how quickly they want to act,” she told her fellow ministers in the final session of the conference. “The difference between 1.5 and 2C is a death sentence for us.”

Beyond kicking the hot potato of meaningful climate action down the road to mid-century for future generations to deal with, another favoured tactic of countries and corporations is to make vague net-zero emission pledges. More than 140 countries have promised to be net zero mostly by 2050, with some countries aiming for sooner and others for later. China has set 2060 as its target date and India is aiming for 2070.

Businesses, from giant multinationals to local steakhouses in Glasgow, have also been falling over themselves to announce net-zero pledges. At least a fifth of the world’s 2,000 largest corporations had already made such promises before COP26.

This is great news, right?

Well, not really. There are indeed a few countries and companies that have seriously committed to lowering their carbon (and ecological) footprint through an ambitious strategy to reduce their emissions and pursue sustainable production and consumption models.

But, for many, climate strategies amount to little more than a PR exercise. Possibly the most ludicrous net-zero claims are the ones being made about fossil fuel products. One flagrant example of this was Shell’s “Drive Carbon Neutral” campaign in the Netherlands, which claimed that consumers could offset their petrol emissions by paying just one euro cent  ($0.012) extra per litre at the pump.

To my mind, this is akin to a modern reincarnation of the indulgences sold by the medieval church. But, here, instead of “sinners”, polluters pay a token amount to absolve themselves of guilt but without making any meaningful change to their destructive behaviour.

Although these indulgences may help Shell executives sleep better at night and motorists feel less guilty about their gas-guzzling vehicles, this stunt does next to nothing for the climate. For that reason, the Dutch advertising standards agency asked Shell to remove the ad after nine law students filed a complaint accusing the oil giant of greenwashing.

Unfortunately, Shell is not alone in making these preposterous claims. There is a troubling new trend among fossil fuel companies of marketing gas and oil which they claim is carbon neutral. A recent investigation we conducted at Carbon Market Watch found that such claims currently being made by oil and gas companies amount to brazen greenwashing.

To the untrained ear, net zero (also known as carbon neutrality) sounds deceptively like zero – and therein lies the marketing genius behind this term and its rapidly gaining popularity. It gives the impression that emissions will be (largely) eliminated.

However, while one factor in this equation relates to cutting down the level of greenhouse gas emissions, the other involves so-called offsetting, i.e. balancing emissions in one place against reductions in another. Offsetting can be achieved through natural solutions that enhance nature’s carbon absorption capacity (such as afforestation or restoring wetlands), investing in renewable energy elsewhere, by buying someone else’s emissions reductions, or by using largely unproven technologies in the future to capture carbon from industrial processes or the air.

If we were to attempt to offset all our emissions by planting trees, this would require at least 1.6 billion hectares (4 billion acres) of new forests, Oxfam estimates. This afforested land would cover five Indias or more than all the farmland on the planet. This would not only lead to mass hunger, it is impractical and impossible. We would need a Planet B to offset this Planet A.

The “net-zero” mantra can distort reality and present as equal yet wildly different realities. For instance, a serious country or company may have a carbon-neutrality plan which relies on slashing emissions by 90 percent and neutralising the remaining 10 percent through offsets. A company or country looking for easy solutions or to greenwash its image could aim for the inverse: 10 percent reductions and 90 percent offsets.

Even though these two hypothetical cases are both theoretically “net zero” or “carbon neutral”, they are not equivalent nor equal. The first is about taking meaningful action to clean up the atmosphere, while the second is about atmospherics and cleaning up one’s image.

The cover provided by the fig leaf of net zero allows the unscrupulous to dress up inaction as determined action. This helps explain why emissions on paper can appear to be falling while in the air, where it really matters, they continue to rise.

After the temporary blip due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the world is on course to return to pre-pandemic emissions levels and, without radical action, emissions will continue to rise steadily in the coming years.

In the vital near term, when we need to massively roll back emissions this decade if we are to keep global heating below or near the critical 1.5C threshold, ambition is severely wanting. When totted up, the combined commitments of world governments will shave a measly 7.5 percent off global emissions by 2030 compared with 2010 levels, according to a UN assessment of national plans, rather than the 65 percent scientific research says is imperative.

To make matters even direr, governments appear to have been underreporting their countries’ emissions, partly thanks to creative “net” accounting that unrealistically exploits natural carbon sinks. The gap between actual and reported global emissions could be as high as 13.3bn tonnes a year, the equivalent of the exhaust of nearly 3 billion cars, a new Washington Post investigation estimates.

What all this reveals is that reporting net emissions and aiming for “net zero” is befogging the road ahead and leading to dangerous levels of procrastination and complacency on the part of governments and corporations.

To properly illuminate the challenges on the horizon, we must abandon talk of “net zero” and speak about emissions and offsets separately. While offsetting can be used to compensate for essential and unavoidable economic activities, climate action must be overwhelmingly focused on reining in real emissions by 65 percent this decade. What we desperately need are climate heroes, not greenwashing zeroes.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.