TOA staggering global change is taking place: 127 countries have declared that by mid-century total emissions of carbon dioxide will be zero. That includes the EU, the US and the UK by 2050, and China by 2060. Companies are enthusiastically signing up for similar projects. Goals of “net zero”. Finally, the international community seems to have accepted the scientific fact that we must stop adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere to stabilize our climate. Dare we hope that the climate crisis can be controlled?
Maybe, but big problems remain. Long-term commitments have not led to enough short-term action. The world is on track for emissions to be just 0.5% below 2010 levels by 2030, compared to 45% required on the way to net zero by 2050. The key climate negotiations at Glasgow Cop26 in November will need to address this. But a more insidious problem is emerging. Net zero increasingly implies highly questionable carbon accounting. As a result, the new policy revolving around net zero goals is fast becoming a confusing and dangerous mix of pragmatism, self-deception, and greenwashing at the arms level.
The science of net zero is simple: every sector in every country in the world should have, on average, zero emissions. We know how to do this for electricity, cars, buildings, and even a lot of heavy industry. But in certain areas, including air travel and some agricultural emissions, there is no prospect of reaching zero emissions in the near future. For these residual emissions, greenhouse gases will need to be sucked out of the atmosphere at the same rate as they are added, so that, on average, there are zero net emissions.
Making this work requires the removal of carbon, also known as “negative emissions.” This can be low-tech, like restoring forests, as it removes carbon from the atmosphere and stores it in trees. Or it can be high-tech, like using chemicals to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and then pump it deep into safe geological storage. In theory, this is all fine, since pragmatically some carbon removal is needed to balance hard-to-reduce emissions – but negative emissions and offset alone are not a route to net zero.
In practice, in believing in the promise of these methods, we too often fool ourselves in three main ways. The first is an unrealistic and over-reliance on carbon removal to preserve the status quo. Shell recently published its net zero plan, which actually projects high oil and gas production through 2050 and beyond, which voila, are magically removed with negative emissions. Critically, there is too little land to plant enough trees to offset current emissions, and large-scale high-tech methods do not yet exist.
The second deception is to offset the theoretical emission trajectories instead of removing carbon from the atmosphere. Mark Carney, a former Bank of England governor and Boris Johnson’s climate advisor, recently described his $ 600 billion Brookfield Asset Management portfolio as “carbon neutral,” despite investing in fossil fuels. Carney said, “The reason we are net zero is that we have this huge renewables business.” He went on to claim that renewables avoid carbon emissions that would otherwise have occurred, thus “offsetting” your investments in fossil fuel emissions. This is not net zero. It’s an accounting trick. Emitting carbon while developing solar capacity does not equal zero emissions overall. Offset should be used to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to counter hard-to-remove emissions, and not just to allow business to be near-normal.
The third deception comes from not getting what you think you are paying for in the global self-regulating carbon market. The business concept of carbon offsetting is based on “additionality”: the money paid reduces emissions or sequesters carbon that would not have otherwise occurred. A recent report that I advised showed that the compensation market is flooded with old carbon credits where that assumption is violated, Some 600 million tons of these poor environmental quality credits can be purchased, six times the current size of the voluntary carbon market. These old credits come from projects that have already been completed, which means that buying additional credits does not provide any additional climate benefits. Total energy giant recently bought these almost useless credits.
What is to be done? Negative emissions and offsets are here to stay. In a limited way, they are necessary to stabilize the climate, as they are the only way to tackle the most difficult emissions to eliminate. An urgent debate is needed on what comprises a “residual issue” that requires compensation. In practical terms, making carbon accounting reliable will require truly independent regulation that is based on science. It is the only way to contain the bad actors and free the capital of the good actors. Solving these carbon hoaxes should be a central outcome of the Glasgow Cop26 climate summit.
If such deceptions persist, disaster looms. Big finance, led by Carney, planning to massively expand carbon markets. It is conceivable that new carbon-based financial products could have a boom, with little impact on emissions. Like the subprime mortgage crisis, few will understand what they bought, and another global collapse could sweep across the globe, exacerbating economic and climate crises and causing massive suffering, when we realize again that the Earth does not owe us. nothing. Nature does not make rescues.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism