Net Zero Targets – just greenwashing?

In the lead up to COP 26 in Glasgow the UK government will be pushing governments and corporations to declare new net-zero targets.  With every announcement we can expect politicians and large parts of the media to declare that these are real steps on the road to tackling the climate crisis.  In most cases this will not be the case. 

An excellent new report ‘Not Zero:  How net zero targets disguise climate inaction’ produced by a partnership of six climate justice organisations spells out why we should look very critically at the claims made for net zero.

The report argues 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. 

Typically net zero strategies allow greenhouse gas emissions to continue while assuming that at some stage in the future equivalent amounts of carbon can be removed from the atmosphere.  The technologies proposed for this are untested at any significant scale.  Moreover, the sums just don’t add up.  We’ve written elsewhere on this site about BECCS (Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage).  Where they use tree planting or other forms of taking carbon dioxide by plants there is simply not enough space on the planet to achieve the targets.  

The report suggests some key questions when net zero plans are being discussed.

  • When the “net zero” target is reached, how much GHG pollution will still be taking place? Will GHG emissions be reduced to nearly zero – or not? 
  • How much CO2 removal does the plan rely on to reach “net zero”? How and where will this be achieved? 
  • Which sectors and GHGs are included? Some or all?3 
  • How many years or decades before a country or corporation can claim to be at “net zero”? 
  • Between now and the “net zero” target date, how many cumulative emissions in total will have been added to the atmosphere? 
  • Will there be “overshoot”, i.e. accumulating atmospheric emissions that take the planet to more than 1.5°C of warming before the assumed CO2 removals take place, thus significantly increasing the risk of crossing irreversible tipping points? 

The conclusion is that effective action on climate requires strategies to drive down greenhouse gas emissions to zero.  

Key findings from the report 

  • The term “net zero” is used by the world’s biggest polluters and governments as a façade to evade responsibility and disguise their inaction or harmful action on climate change. 
  • “Net zero emissions” does not mean “zero emissions” and should not be accepted at face value. 
  • There is simply not enough available land on the planet to accommodate all of the combined corporate and government “net zero” plans for offsets and Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) tree plantations. 
  • Collectively, “net zero” climate targets allow for continued rising levels of greenhouse gas (GHGs) emissions, while hoping that technologies or tree plantations will be able to suck carbon dioxide (CO2) out of the air in the future. 
  • By putting the burden for carbon sequestration onto land and tree plantations in global South countries – which have done little to cause the climate crisis – most “net zero” climate targets are effectively driving a form of carbon colonialism. 
  • Many governments and corporations have pledged to achieve “net zero” by a distant date, further compounding the harm caused. “Net zero by 2050” is too little, too late. 
  • When assessing “net zero” targets, we must remember key questions of fairness and ethics: Whose land? Whose forests? Whose emissions? Whose responsibility? 
  • Instead of relying on future technologies and harmful land grabs, we need climate plans that radically reduce emissions to Real Zero. 

Towards Net Zero?

On the 7th February 2019 Edinburgh City Council resolved to declare a climate emergency. On the 25th October Edinburgh City Council’s Policy and Sustainability met to consider a draft report from the Place-Based Climate Action Network (P-CAN) research project on Achieving Net Zero in the City of Edinburgh. The report will form the basis for discussion of an action plan at the February 2020 meeting of the committee.

In this post Pete Cannell gives a personal response to the report. We hope to publish further contributions on this important topic and we welcome comments, responses to the questions he poses and further contributions.

It’s important and encouraging that, in response to pressure from the School Student strikers, XR and the wider movement, Edinburgh City Council is set to discus actions to reduce carbon emissions. This post takes a critical look at the report that forms the basis for the council’s discussions.

‘Achieving Net Zero in the City of Edinburgh’ is a technical report that summarises research undertaken by the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation (ECCI), drawing on expertise from the University of Edinburgh and the University of Leeds. Net zero means that carbon emissions from activity in Edinburgh are balanced by an equal amount of carbon being removed from the atmosphere. The net zero target applies to emissions from within the local authority boundaries. Critically, however, some emissions, most notably those from aviation are not included.

The cost-benefit analysis used by the research team is based on the same methodology that was used in the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change that was published in 2006.

The report notes that Edinburgh’s baseline emissions have declined by 40.3% since 2001. This reduction is almost entirely a result of changes in the way that Scotland’s electricity is generated with coal fired power stations closing down and replacement by renewables – primarily wind. Renewables are now such an important part of the grid that there is little scope for further reduction from this source.

The report models three scenarios for how much energy use and emissions could be reduced by 2030:

1. A 56% reduction in carbon emissions as a result of ‘cost effective’ investments amounting to £3.976 billion over the next 11 years. The savings resulting from these investments would repay the investment in 7.5 years and continue to generate savings thereafter.

2. A 62% reduction as a result of ‘cost neutral’ investments of £7.492 billion over the 11 years to 2030 that would be paid back in savings over 12.5 years.

3. A 67% reduction exploiting the full technical potential of the different mitigation measures proposed. This is estimated to require investment of at least £8.135 billion with the cost neutral pay back extending to 16.1 years.

The figures aggregate emission reduction strategies across multiple sectors – commercial, transport, domestic and industrial and the report provides some detailed proposals for the kinds of investment that needs to be made in each of these.

The report is honest about the scale of the technical and investment challenge but confines consideration of politics and strategy to the observation that:

Whilst the opportunities outlined here are all feasible and ‘win-wins’ for stakeholder groups across the city, they will require near-immediate and unequivocal support from institutions and the public.

Will the City Council’s action plan be framed in a way that faces up to the urgency of the crisis and wins unequivocal support? And will it address the gap between the reductions proposed in the report and net zero? Climate campaigners have a critical role to play here. We have a responsibility to build a movement embedded in working class communities across the city that is active, restless, rebellious and probes, questions and criticizes at every stage and every step. And we need to develop a collective understanding of how actions to reduce emissions and the unequivocal support of the mass of the population are achieved and built through democratic engagement and a focus on social justice.

There are a host of questions that we need to address. In the hope of starting a debate I’ll mention just a few!

The activities of the city council are responsible for only a small percentage of Edinburgh’s emissions. So how does an effective action plan ensure that the investment into emissions reductions envisaged by ‘Towards Net Zero’ take place across all areas of energy consumption? How does a council action plan leverage action across the whole city? Clearly there’s a role for regulation – for example imposing building regulations that mandate carbon neutral new builds. There’s also a case for investment in large-scale public initiatives – for example building insulation.

‘Towards Net Zero’ focuses on a cost benefit approach together with the implementation of existing low carbon technologies – and holds out the promise that in future emerging technologies will bridge the gap to net zero. Is this an appropriate methodology in the face of an existential crisis? Can it actually work? It’s not business as usual but it suggests that conventional methods together with technology can achieve net zero. So is net zero achievable without system change? And if it’s not, what does system change look like?

Treating carbon reduction as an issue about investment and technology may also hide real issues of policy. So for example business and tourism planning in Edinburgh have both had huge impact on how and where we live, the distances we travel to work and how we travel. As Edinburgh’s workforce is pushed further outside the city boundaries to find affordable accommodation the carbon footprint of our daily working lives has grown. But the ‘Towards Net Zero’ effectively excludes these issues, as it does the massive rise in aviation emissions, which are so strongly linked to current planning priorities. So while we can commend the City Council’s steps towards an action plan there is a powerful case for integrated planning across the region and for new policy frameworks for housing, health, work, transport and tourism that centre on zero carbon and social justice.

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Image: Pete Cannell, CC0

There is an opportunity to discuss the issues raised in this post at the  Scot.E3 conference that takes place on 16th November.  Book for the conference on Eventbrite and email triple.e.scot@gmail.com if you want to book one or more crèche places.