Can the new heroes of net zero save the climate?

From countries and corporations to fossil fuel producers and steakhouses, almost everyone is pledging to reach net-zero emissions. But meeting these promises would require a Planet B to offset Planet A. We need other solutions.

Image: ©Khaled Diab

Wednesday 1 December 2021

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 conference (COP26). On the sidelines, activists (myself included) campaigned to persuade governments to replace platitudes with attitude, inaction with action.

Nevertheless, the hot air and greenwashing was plentiful, with delegates with ties to fossil fuel companies outnumbering even the largest country delegation. In the pavilion section, greenwashing came from the nuclear , 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 , and major oil producers such as those from 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 grandchildren or children and the future of humanity. However, despite the platitudes, rich countries, from the United States to Europe, showed little appetite to downscale their lifestyles and emerging economic powerhouses, such as China and , 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 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 2°C 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. According to the Climate Action Tracker, over 140 countries have promised to be 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.

Corporations and companies, from giant 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, according to Oxford University's Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit.

This is great news, right?

Well, it is good news for the rather few countries and companies who have seriously committed to lower their carbon (and ecological) footprint through an ambitious strategy to reduce their emissions and pursue sustainable production and consumption models.

But, for many, it amounts 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 , which claimed that consumers could offset their petrol emissions by paying just one euro cent extra 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 amongst 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 all 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 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 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 wildly different realities. For instance, a serious country or company may have a carbon-neutrality plan which relies on slashing reductions by 90% and neutralising the remaining 10% through offsets. A company or country looking for easy solutions or to greenwash its image could aim for the inverse: 10% reductions and 90% 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.

Despite a temporary blip due to , 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 1.5℃ threshold, ambition is severely wanting. When totted up, the combined commitments of world governments will shave a measly 7.5% off global emissions by 2030 compared to 2010 levels, according to a UN assessment of national plans, rather than the 65% 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 13.3 billion tonnes a year (the equivalent 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 a 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% this decade. What we desperately need are climate heroes, not greenwashing zeroes.


This article was first published by Al Jazeera on 22 November 2021.

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