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.