Saturday August 13, 2022

‘Net zero’ myth

November 24, 2021

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, ie 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.

Excerpted: ‘The ‘net zero’ myth’