Every day there is a new ‘net zero’ announcement. The latest tranche includes Shell, whose plan features the continuation of fossil fuel use. If that sounds like a major contradiction, we’re with you. So, is this all just greenwashing? What does net zero really mean?
The internet is buzzing with climate scientists and experts sharing their concerns about ‘net-zero’ targets. Recently discourse has included more insight into how calculations are made and some serious shortcomings have been highlighted. We’re going to discuss some of their chief concerns a little later but first, let’s revise the basics.
What is ‘net zero’?
Since the industrial revolution, we have been emitting huge amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere with abandon. Despite fossil fuel companies and many in the scientific community knowing for decades that this was causing the global temperature to rise and an increase in natural disasters like forest fires, hurricanes and tsunamis, there was a lack of tangible action. Scientists now understand that carbon is a ‘long-lived’ pollutant, which means it can linger in the atmosphere for centuries. Much like plastic pollution, all the emissions we have pumped into the atmosphere are still there.
Think of it like a bathtub that is already full but the tap has been left on – now we have a major problem. We need to rapidly decrease the number of new emissions and simultaneously draw down as much of the CO2 that already exists if we are going to have any chance of mitigating the worst repercussions of climate change. In other words, we have to turn off the tap while also dealing with the overspill.
Net-zero emissions may sound like, but is absolutely not, zero emissions. Governments and business have been calculating their total emissions, setting out plans to make reductions and then ‘offsetting’ the rest. If they can offset equal or more emissions than they generate, then you have a ‘net’ figure of zero. They are still emitting carbon. Lots of it.
How is it calculated?
Just weeks ago, three prominent climate scientists authored a piece on The Conversation outlining their concerns about the understanding of, and plans for governments and businesses to reach, ‘net zero’. The experts shared their fears that continuing the current narrative could be catastrophic. In the piece, they explain that in the early days of emission calculations, the economy was built into the arithmetic.
“These hybrid climate-economic models are known as Integrated Assessment Models (IAM). They allowed modellers to link economic activity to the climate by, for example, exploring how changes in investments and technology could lead to changes in greenhouse gas emissions. They seemed like a miracle: you could try out policies on a computer screen before implementing them, saving humanity costly experimentation. They rapidly emerged to become key guidance for climate policy. A primacy they maintain to this day.”
If all that sounds a little complicated, what they are essentially saying is that playing around figures that include forecasts and predictions about the economy and scientific development has allowed companies to produce impressive-looking plans but when interrogated further, there is far too much estimation involved for them to be reliable.
They go on to say that this over-reliance on economy-led calculations, removed much of the important social and political context and limited necessary scrutiny. The authors also explain that in tandem with the development of IAM, the US petitioned for the addition of tree numbers to be included in the computation. This has led to the idea that simply planting more trees will be enough to counter emissions.
“Postulating a future with more trees could in effect offset the burning of coal, oil and gas now. As models could easily churn out numbers that saw atmospheric carbon dioxide go as low as one wanted, ever more sophisticated scenarios could be explored which reduced the perceived urgency to reduce fossil fuel use.”
Net-zero policies today are still based on these faulty calculations and are being rolled out by everyone from Amazon to Heathrow Airport, convincing many of us that we can carry on living the lives we are accustomed to and still save the planet.
Net-zero targets are littered with problems
Plans lack clear targets and timelines lack urgency
The first issue with many net-zero commitments is that they give themselves anywhere from ten to thirty years to achieve their targets. An example of this is the UK government, which recently announced its plan to achieve net-zero by 2050. Clearly, an entire nation achieving a target like this is anything but easy but we know that 2050 will be far too late. “Unless these targets are supported by strategies that are reasonable, transparent and include strong accountability mechanisms, there is a significant risk that stakeholders will be misled,” Daniel Wiseman, Laywer at ClientEarth.
There is no benchmark on what to include
While the UK is currently celebrating the fact that they have already achieved 51% of their goal, advisors are quick to note that this does not include emissions from international aviation or shipping.
When there is no set template to follow, we are left in a place where governments and businesses can cherry-pick what to include and what to strategically omit.
They rely heavily on technology and offsetting
By and large, the powers that be are not making drastic reductions in their emissions. Instead, they are focused on balancing out those emissions by ‘offsetting’ and by investing in ‘negative emissions technologies’ (NETs) which remove CO2 from the atmosphere. Offsetting is the idea that emissions can be counterbalanced by investment in carbon sequestering elsewhere. We are still looking for that ‘magic bullet’ solution that will solve all our problems.
IAMs frequently have relied on a technology called bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS). This explainer video is a great introduction to BECCS. In summary, BECCS is a proposed alternative to coal. Biomass like wood and agricultural waste is burned to produce ‘cleaner’ energy and the carbon emitted during the process is captured and stored underground. However, as the article points out, in order to scale up technology like this to the size needed to deal with current energy needs and carbon capture requirements, huge areas of land would need to be allocated – up to five times the size of India!
Other prospective technologies are in even earlier stages of development and we do not have systems in place to deploy them at the scale needed. When net-zero plans are including these kinds of technology in their calculations, it’s clear we have a major issue and that targets can very easily be missed. This, the piece notes, is a risky bet. “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.”
The tree planting business is booming
Another day, another tree planting company popping up and promising to ease our guilt with a tree planted for every sin. Don’t get me wrong, we are 100% treehuggers at GITNB and all in favour of protecting and growing tree-cover but the industry is not without its challenges. It is largely unregulated and credible, with effective tree-planting schemes in the minority (but there are lessons to be learnt).
The first problem is that we are attempting to offset emissions today by planting trees that will not mature for years to come. Secondly, for a carbon capture solution to be truly efficient, it must permanently lock away the greenhouse gasses. Trees are often not protected and can be lost to fires or wildlife before ever reaching maturity.
Thirdly, the type of tree and location is incredibly important. Planting swathes of one type of tree is a form of monoculture and will harm biodiversity. The wrong trees in the wrong places could easily do more harm than good. Prominent environmental NGO Friends of the Earth explains that offsetting should not be our first port of all but rather used to balance only emissions that are truly unavoidable.
Lastly, there are many examples of tree planting companies pushing native people off their land to make way for their planting targets, paid for by wealthy corporations and states who want to offset their over-consumption. This is known as “Green Colonialism”, the claiming of land from native indigenous peoples in the name of conservation. Sadly, this is not a new phenomenon. Yellowstone National Park, the first-ever national park in the US, was ‘protected’ for the purpose of rest and respite of white Americans and 26 tribes of Indigenous Americans, who had lived there for over 10,000 years, were driven from the land in the name of conservation.
A report by Amnesty International details the account of Sengwer people in Kenya who were forcibly removed from their homes and expelled from their ancestral homelands as part of a government plan to decrease deforestation. The Sengwer people were not consulted during planning and did not consent to their removal. This is not only violent and unjust but excluding native people from projects involving their land can also result in an ineffectual programme. Examples of this are also happening in India and China.
In the most recent episode of the Yikes podcast, host Jo Becker (aka @treesnpeace) shared a story she had heard in university while studying Degrowth and Environmental Justice about a tree-planting initiative that was rolled out without consulting local people. The NGO delivering the work came in and planted trees but didn’t realise that elephants would migrate to that area in winter and when they did, they ate all the seedlings thus making the entire operation null and void. No doubt there was a net-zero plan somewhere counting that as part of their goal. This can be avoided if we include indigenous people who have knowledge of the land and have been taking care of it for centuries.
I must admit, I found this topic pretty depressing so to counter the impending eco-anxiety, I went in search of a more positive way to conclude this investigation.
Natural climate solutions and Degrowth
There is a better way to approach decarbonisation and it starts with people and nature. In our search for solutions, it is imperative that we prioritise those that can sustain both the environmental and the sociological need of humanity and the planet.
Natural Climate Solutions (NCS) take us back to a more balanced ecosystem where carbon is once again captured through natural systems like trees, peatlands, seaweed and mangroves. Through the conservation and restoration of ecosystems and effective land management, we can reduce our need to develop new technologies while also repairing our relationship with the planet. There are many added benefits to NCS like improved water filtration and flood protection, soil health and restoring biodiversity habitat. Project Drawdown is a non-profit dedicated to sharing science-backed climate solutions and features many NCS as part of the robust framework for action, including land and marine solutions that we have the knowledge to implement now!
Another often overlooked, or more accurately – purposely avoided – is degrowth. Our current capitalist system is based on a model of constant and ever more rapid growth. The main beneficiaries of this system are the wealthy and in particular billionaires. The Degrowth movement asks us to critique this system and ask ‘who is this actually serving?’. A Degrowth system is one that reduces production and consumption.
> Care for people and planet
> Scale down resource and energy use
> Ensure Justice, Equality and Sustainability
Shifting the focus
As well as slowing production, Degrowth would put social and environmental justice front and centre. To some, this still sounds radical but support is increasing. In the recently published book, The Case for Degrowth, the contributors discuss how “Degrowth can be achieved through transformative strategies that allow societies to slow down by design, not disaster.“
To achieve Degrowth, we need a significant cultural change and a total overhaul of how we live our lives in modern society. As citizens, one of the most powerful ways we can start this culture change is to have conversations about Degrowth. We have lived with Capitalism for so long that anything else is inconceivable to most people and simply opening up the conversation about genuine alternatives is the first step towards positive change. We can also model Degrowth principles in our everyday life by checking our impulse to buy solutions and instead of being more resourceful and creative – mending our clothes, repairing items that have wear and tear, upcycling and avoiding food waste.
Our current economic model is focused on never-ending growth, despite the limited resources of our planet. As we come out of the pandemic more aware of inequality than ever and increasingly disillusioned by consumption-driven lives, now is the perfect time to reset with a system that prioritises the health and wellbeing of our planet and everyone on it.
And to reiterate our love of trees, here is a list of just some the wonderful things they do!
Featured image: via Creative Commons Image description: a protest in the street with large crafted scissors that say ‘cut the carbon’
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