What's so zero about Net Zero?

New climate commitments are launched every day. Most are built on the target ‘net zero’. In fact more than half the global economy and a quarter of global CO2 emissions are now covered by net-zero commitments.

There’s even a newish Wall St Net Zero Asset Managers Initiative with 30 signatures and $9 trillion in assets under management. Blackrock recently joined the party, launching their own net zero commitment as they prepare to devour billions of US taxpayer dollars through Biden’s climate plan (see my previous post on Blackrock’s upcoming role in the US climate initiative).

Without question the most important and defining net zero commitment is the UN’s 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) target.

To limit global warming to 1.5°C, warns the IPCC, the world needs to reach net-zero CO2 emissions by 2050.

But what does net zero actually mean? What are net zero emissions and how do they differ from zero emissions?

Let’s begin with the IPCC definition. The IPCC defines net-zero as that point when

anthropogenic (human generated) emissions of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere are balanced by anthropogenic removals over a specified period

In other words, for every ton of greenhouse gas we emit into the air, we take a ton out. 

This sounds plausible until we ask: is it feasible to permanently take out a ton for every ton of greenhouse gas emitted? And how are we planning to do it?

Net zero advocates claim it can be done by taking three pathways.

The first pathway is offsetting: nature-based climate solutions that compensate for and neutralise greenhouse gas emissions. Protecting and restoring ecosystems – i.e. planting trees and drawing down carbon into organic soil - are ways of offsetting.

Let’s call that pathway the ‘do-gooding’ trajectory.

Clearly the ‘do-gooding’ path has many problems. There are limits to the land available for re-forestation. Trees take time to grow and absorb carbon. Forests can be cut or burnt down. And land and soil into which carbon has been drawn down can once again be degraded – by human or nature’s actions. 

And then there’s the question of whether these offsets are tracked transparently and measured accurately.

Exactly how many trees equal drilling for oil in the Arctic?

Given how detached most global corporations are from democratic accountability, and how pervasive is corporate fraud – can we really trust their promises to offset fossil fuel emissions?

A second pathway is carbon storage and/or carbon capture and storage (CCS).

Carbon capture is still an unproven technology. Despite optimistic projections and extensive government subsidies, carbon capture and storage projects are obscenely expensive. Most projects have been shelved after delays and cost blowouts; the only CCS power plant ever completed in the United States costs several times what it would have cost to simply build comparable renewable energy capacity.

There’s also the risk of the re-release of the stored carbon – either through human action or natural forces (drought, fire, pests).  These same risks apply to ocean or geological storage.

Plus, it turns out that CCS plants burn more fuel to power the equipment than to capture carbon in the first place!

So let’s call this pathway the ‘deluded’ pathway of false claims.

The third ‘net zero’ pathway defers the duty to abate emissions to – wait for it - future generations to finish off the job in the second half of the century!

The official line on “deferring the duty to abate” is that despite best endeavours, states and corporations will not have eliminated all emissions by the target date (2050).  As a result, there are going to be ‘residual emissions’ for the next generation to deal with.

Insane. At this rate will there even be a next generation?

We can call that last trajectory ‘deferred gratification’ of the zero emissions target.

Let’s stop this scam.  

Net Zero pathways are pathways to oblivion. Not only is the time scale of 2050 too late to avert catastrophic warming, but the ‘net’ in net zero strategies is nothing more than a refusal to face reality, and to act.

What net zero really does is buy predatory capitalism more time.

It is capitalism’s dirty little secret.

In a recent Bloomberg interview, Blackrock’s CEO Larry Fink reassured us that the behemoths of globalised capital markets are risk-aware, forward-looking and fast-moving.

…it’s very clear we, in the capital markets, we bring risk forward.  We don’t wait until the risk is in front of us. There are times that that happens and that was (of course) the case in the financial crisis… but in most cases we navigate the risk and through that process we mitigate most risks.” (Emphasis added)

This would be laughable if it weren’t so darn dishonest. The risk to humanity is in front of us now – but still Blackrock and other large financial institutions gamble with humanity’s future – just as Fink is forced to admit they did before the Great Financial Crisis.

The good news is that there is a clear strategy for lowering emissions rapidly, and, as it happens, it’s one that Fink and his Wall St friends can actuallyhelp us with.  

Professor Kevin Anderson explains:

Globally the wealthiest 10% are responsible for half of all emissions... If the top 10% cut their emissions to the level of the average EU citizen, and the other 90% made no change in their lifestyles, that would still cut total emissions by a third.

If we were serious about this crisis we could do this in a year – if we were really serious we could do it in a month, but we are not and our emissions just keep rising.

At COP26 the world’s nations must get serious and tackle the risk in front of us. And the UN must stop using deceitful language to hide and prolong global capitalism’s reckless gamble with fossil fuels.