By focusing the climate fight on what we emit, not what we consume, we are destined to fail—net-zero emissions policies aren’t enough to prevent catastrophe
Reynard Loki is a writing fellow at the Independent Media Institute, where he serves as the editor and chief correspondent for Earth | Food | Life
This article was produced by Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute
Solving the global climate crisis is not going to be easy. So when the seemingly simple “net-zero” concept was proposed, it quickly became a popular rallying cry in the fight against climate change. “Net-zero” is based on the idea that human society can continue to emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, provided that there is a way to “offset” the emissions. It makes sense that the main thrust of the climate fight is to drastically slash our carbon emissions: Global average temperatures are around 1.2 degrees Celsius warmer today than before the Industrial Revolution caused Earth’s carbon cycle to speed up, building the carbon bomb that we are seeing explode today.
It has been widely accepted that net-zero is a major objective that is required to achieve the Paris climate agreement’s goal of keeping global temperature rise to within 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. In their special report on global warming released in October 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that in order to prevent the worst impacts of climate change, nations must achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. This target has been embraced by nations, politicians, academics, activists, farmers, and even oil and gas companies.
The Lowy Institute’s annual survey of climate sentiment in Australia, published in May, found that eight out of ten Australians support “setting a net-zero emissions target for 2050.” Similarly, a separate poll, also published in May, conducted by Leger 360 in conjunction with the Association for Canadian Studies, found that the majority of Canadians and Americans support their respective nations meeting that target.
To realize the net-zero 2050 dream, society must hit a perfect combination of technological advances, climate-driven policies and lowered emissions. Ingredients in the recipe for success include the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources like wind and solar, the rapid increase in the use of electric vehicles, and the maturation of early-stage technologies like carbon capture and storage. “Addressing climate change will require investment in technologies that help to limit future emissions,” said Tom Crowther, a professor of global ecosystem ecology at ETH Zürich and the chief scientific adviser to the United Nation’s Trillion Tree Campaign. “[B]ut we will need thousands of solutions in combination.” Overall, we need nothing less than a fundamental change in how humanity operates. The Financial Times argues that “[m]eeting this goal… would require a total transformation of the global economy over the next three decades.” That is a tall order.
In May, the International Energy Agency (IEA) released its 2050 roadmap for the global energy sector. “We are very happy to note that many governments now are making commitments to bring their emissions to net-zero by 2050,” said Fatih Birol, IEA’s executive director, in a press briefing on May 18. “Very encouraging, those commitments.” He also pointed out how the IEA has “already made special cases and analyses on this 1.5 degrees future to understand our modeling capabilities, data and how we can make an energy world which is compatible with [a] 1.5 [degrees future].”
“Efforts to reach net-zero must be complemented with adaptation and resilience measures, and the mobilization of climate financing for developing countries,” says the United Nations. This multilayered approach, while necessary, makes it even more difficult to track progress on a global scale, with each nation, state and local government working on separate methods, with different definitions, and with varying degrees of legal obligations. While more than 120 nations have made the “net-zero by 2050” pledge, only six countries—France, the United Kingdom, Denmark, Sweden, Hungary and New Zealand—have made that target the law of the land. Canada, Chile, Spain, South Korea, Fiji and the European Union are considering doing the same. President Joe Biden made the 2050 pledge. China said it will hit the target before 2060.
By midcentury, perhaps we can finally live as harmoniously with the planetary ecosystem as we did before the Industrial Revolution. Well, that’s the hope, at least. The problem is that the net-zero plan is a fantasy. By letting governments and the polluting industries make vague commitments without any legal requirement to meet them, society is placing a lot of trust in a mirage. By relying on future technologies, we are shifting the ultimate solutions to the next generation. By making our emissions the culprit, and not our overconsumption, we are missing the chance to truly align an ethical, balanced and sustainable human lifestyle with the requirements to maintain healthy, functioning ecosystems—of which we are a primary beneficiary. And thinking that renewable energy will save the day is simply delusional when 84 percent of the global economy is currently powered by fossil fuels, while renewables account for a meager 5 percent share of the world’s overall energy consumption.
Beyond that obvious and massive hurdle, “[i]mportant questions are being overlooked,” write climate researchers Joeri Rogelj, Oliver Geden, Annette Cowie and Andy Reisinger, in a commentary published in March in the journal Nature. “Should some sectors, such as electricity generation, reach [net zero] earlier to counterbalance harder-to-abate sectors including heavy industry? Is it fair to expect emerging economies to reach [net zero] on the same schedule as long-industrialized ones? Without careful attention to such issues, individual achievements risk being too weak to deliver the collective climate goal of the Paris agreement.”
Another part of the net-zero fantasy is the illogical and irresponsible reliance on technologies that have not yet been tested or even developed. Writing in the Conversation, climate scientists James Dyke of the University of Exeter, Robert Watson of the University of East Anglia, and Wolfgang Knorr of Lund University admit that they were “deceived” by the “deceptively simple” premise of net-zero. They warn other scientists not to fall prey to this “dangerous trap” that “helps perpetuate a belief in technological salvation and diminishes the sense of urgency surrounding the need to curb emissions now.”
Even slashing emissions now would not solve the problem. More than 90 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions that have been created over the past 50 years are currently stored in the world’s oceans, and are eventually and slowly being released into the atmosphere as global warming heat. If society were to cut all emissions today, this drawn-out process of heating the air above locks the world into what the Economist calls “inevitable warming” in the years ahead.
There’s another deeper, philosophical problem. The concept that reducing emissions is the way out of the climate crisis is a convenient way to maintain society’s current levels of rampant overconsumption. By tagging emissions as the culprit, and not our personal behaviors, those of us who can afford to will continue to possess massive homes, multiple cars, and a myriad of electronic devices—as long as they use renewable energy. We can continue to traveling around the globe and taking cruise ships and buying food and goods that originate thousands of miles away—as long as those emissions are offset elsewhere.
The reality is that we don’t need more electric vehicles; we need fewer vehicles, period. Just think of all the materials that go into making an electric vehicle: steel, iron, aluminum, copper, cobalt, lithium, manganese, carbon fibers, polymers, graphite, glass, and a variety of rare-earth minerals like dysprosium, neodymium, niobium, terbium and praseodymium. The mining, processing and manufacturing industries required to extract and use these materials are highly destructive to ecosystems around the world—even deep-sea environments that are being ruined when waste rock and sediment from mining is dumped into the ocean—and emit tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
In a report released in May, the IEA found that in order to meet global climate targets, the demand for minerals to supply the electric car industry may increase by at least 30 times by 2040. And that requires more mining and more manufacturing, which requires more fossil fuel combustion, and that means more emissions. A 2019 study published in the journal Energy by researchers in China found that manufacturing a single electric car emits about 2.5 more metric tons of carbon dioxide than manufacturing a car with an internal combustion (fossil fuel) engine. “The data shows a looming mismatch between the world’s strengthened climate ambitions and the availability of critical minerals that are essential to [realizing] those ambitions,” said IEA’s Birol after the release of his agency’s minerals report.
“The details behind ‘net-zero’ labels differ enormously,” write Rogelj, Geden, Cowie and Reisinger. “Some targets focus solely on carbon dioxide. Others cover all greenhouse gases. Companies might consider only emissions under their direct control, or include those from their supply chains and from the use or disposal of their products. Sometimes the targets do not aim to reduce emissions, but compensate for them with offsets.”
Another issue that net-zero and climate discussions rarely include is our broken, polluting and unethical animal-based food system. Together, the meat and dairy industries account for about 14.5 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization. And these industries are not poised to reduce their emissions to the degree that is required to meet the Paris agreement goal. The IPCC report concedes that in order to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, negative emissions technologies (NETs)—technologies that remove carbon dioxide that is already in the atmosphere—will need to be deployed. “Even with rapid mitigation efforts, it is likely that NETs will be required to offset emissions from sectors that cannot easily reduce their emissions to zero, research shows,” according to Carbon Brief, a UK-based website covering climate science and energy policy. “These sectors include rice and meat production, which produce methane, and air travel.”
“We don’t want to tell people what to eat,” said ecologist Hans-Otto Pörtner, co-chair of the IPCC’s working group on impacts, adaptation and vulnerability. “But it would indeed be beneficial, for both climate and human health, if people in many rich countries consumed less meat, and if politics would create appropriate incentives to that effect.”
There is no telling what humanity’s meat consumption will be like in 30 years, but the trendlines are not promising. While interest in veganism hit an all-time high last year (driven in part by the COVID-19 pandemic) and there has been strong support for ending federal bailouts for factory farms, global meat consumption is expected to increase 1.4 percent per year through 2023. “Dietary shifts could contribute one-fifth of the mitigation needed to hold warming below 2°C, with one-quarter of low-cost options,” according to the IPCC report. “There, however, remains limited evidence of effective policy interventions to achieve such large-scale shifts in dietary choices, and prevailing trends are for increasing rather than decreasing demand for livestock products at the global scale.”
“Although the burning of fossil fuels for energy and transport garners the most attention, activities relating to land management, including agriculture and forestry, produce almost one-quarter of heat-trapping gases resulting from human activities,” writes Quirin Schiermeier for the journal Nature. “The race to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels… might be a lost cause unless land is used in a more sustainable and climate-friendly way.”
The oil and gas industry has been happy to support the net-zero myth, using it as a smokescreen to project abstract pledges while still increasing their production of fossil fuels. Last year, for example, BP announced what the New York Times described as “the most ambitious climate change goal of any major oil company.” Yet the London-based firm, which netted an income of more than $20 billion in 2020, “provided few details on how, exactly, it would achieve that difficult feat.” It helps to put into context the sheer magnitude of emissions that are generated from BP’s product. Including extraction, refinement and combustion, the annual emissions of the company’s fossil fuels amount to 415 million tons—a footprint nearly equivalent to that of the state of California. And the company has not made any firm commitments to stop extracting fossil fuel.
“BP is one of the companies most responsible for the climate emergency,” said 350.org campaigner Ellen Gibson, who works on fossil fuel divestment. “They say they want their business model to align with the Paris Agreement, but simply put: it is not possible to keep to a [2°C] warming limit—let alone [1.5°C]—while continuing to dig up and burn fossil fuels. Unless BP commits clearly to stop searching for more oil and gas, and to keep their existing reserves in the ground, we shouldn’t take a word of their PR spin seriously.”
In February, Royal Dutch Shell, one of the world’s biggest oil and gas companies, announced details of how it will achieve its net-zero emissions pledge by 2050. But, reports Inside Climate News, “[t]he day after Shell announced its net-zero ambition, the company also announced it would build a $6.4 billion gas project in Australia that is expected to operate for nearly 30 years, part of a joint venture with PetroChina. That project alone would draw more investment from Shell than all of its renewable energy ventures to date.”
“Getting to net-zero doesn’t require us to stop looking for, extracting and burning fossil fuels—a major driver of the climate crisis. It might require some reduction, but it would definitely not keep fossil fuels in the ground where they belong,” writes Earth | Food | Life contributor Patti Lynn, the executive director of Corporate Accountability, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Boston, on NationofChange. “In short, aiming for net-zero is a far cry from getting to the roots of the climate crisis. It certainly does nothing to shift an unjust economy that relies on unlimited extraction and burning of fossil fuels for the benefit of the few at the expense of the many. Without getting to the root of the problem, we will never truly solve it.”
There’s still another sad reality that is tied to the net-zero fantasy. Tying its success to technologies that aren’t yet proven at scale (like carbon capture technologies, which today capture a paltry 0.1 percent of global emissions) or even here yet (like Bill Gates’ head-scratching scheme to dim the Sun—more an exercise in hubris than in logic) amounts to kicking the climate ball down the field, to be solved by the next generation. Many of those who will be in charge in 2050 have not yet been born. By trying to change our emissions, but not our behavior, we are doing those future leaders and their constituents a grave disservice. “Adults keep saying we owe it to the young people to give them hope. But I don’t want your hope,” said climate youth activist Greta Thunberg in 2019. “I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day.”
The IEA’s goal of making an “energy world” compatible with a 1.5 degrees Celsius future is a bit off the mark. Ultimately, the transformation of the global economy and the healing of the environment starts with making our consumption—that is, our impact—compatible with the future we want. And that begins with making the right personal decisions as consumers, homemakers, parents, travelers, drivers and eaters. “Every single day that we live, we make some impact on the planet,” said famed primatologist Jane Goodall. “We have a choice as to what kind of impact that is.”