Net zero faces fierce criticism
“The enemy of a good plan is the dream of a perfect one”
Carl von Clausewitz, 1780-1831
The backlash is underway. And it’s coming from the unlikeliest of quarters.
For much of the past two years the global push to deliver net-zero emissions has enjoyed a remarkable golden run. National and state governments have rushed to announce long term net-zero emissions goals, to the point where around two-thirds of global GDP is covered by some form of target. Businesses and investors have followed suit, with over 2,100 of the world’s largest corporates having set net-zero goals under the U.N.-backed Race to Zero campaign while asset managers and owners worth trillions of dollars have pledged to deliver net-zero emission portfolios by mid-century at the latest.
These various goals have helped trigger billions of dollars of investment in low carbon infrastructure and R&D, as well as an entire new ecosystem of campaigners, academics, regulators, investors, politicians, and business executives who are working round the clock to translate long-term net-zero ambitions into credible near term decarbonization strategies. While still daunted by the epic and tragic scale of the climate crisis, this community has been buoyed by the way in which their work already has helped deliver both plummeting clean technology costs and a decoupling of greenhouse gas emissions and global GDP.
Less than six years on from the Paris Agreement, the combination of the landmark accord’s 1.5 degree Celsius temperature goal and its commitment to “achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century” has unleashed one of the fastest and most consequential corporate trends since the inception of the first Industrial Revolution. It is, in many regards, one of the most successful environmental campaigns in history.
And now it is facing fierce criticism not just from the perennial climate-denying opponents of climate action, who allege the net-zero mission is an exorbitantly expensive and unnecessary pipe dream, but also from a growing number of the world’s most influential and respected environmental campaigners and scientists.
Trials and tribulations
It seems each story announcing a fresh net-zero pledge now sparks outraged warnings on social media that “net-zero is not zero” or heartfelt explanations as to why net-zero commitments are meaningless “greenwash” and what is needed is “real zero,” like, yesterday.
This critique has been amplified by Greta Thunberg, who has used her huge Twitter platform and vital position as one of the world’s only functioning accountability mechanisms to warn that “net-zero targets” are “being used as excuses to postpone real action.” “Yes we need to balance out some emissions that can’t be eliminated (agriculture etc),” she argued in April. “But as it is now I dare to claim that these distant net-zero targets aren’t about that, rather they’re about communication tactics and making it seem like we’re acting without having to change.” She also shared a “Friends” meme which offered a similar, if pithier, analysis:
— Greta Thunberg (@GretaThunberg) April 24, 2021
These widespread and understandable concerns were expanded upon in an article for The Conversation from three of Europe’s leading environmental scientists. Under the headline “Climate scientists: concept of net-zero is a dangerous trap,” the University of Exeter’s James Dyke, the University of East Anglia’s Robert Watson and the University of Lund’s Wolfgang Knorr condemned the “fantasy of net-zero” and concluded “current net-zero policies will not keep warming to within 1.5C because they were never intended to.” The article was quickly shared by Thunberg, who hailed it as “one of the most important and informative texts I have ever read on the climate- and ecological crises.”
In further evidence that Shakespeare was right about the way in which trials and tribulations can lead to “strange bedfellows,” these attacks on the net-zero movement’s entire conceptual underpinning already has been seized upon by traditional opponents of climate action who wilfully misunderstand environmentalists’ legitimate concerns about the efficacy of emissions targets and twist their analysis to argue decarbonization goals are all a crock. As one observer noted to me privately, when The Australian newspaper is praising Thunberg for exposing “the emptiness” of climate promises then something has gone pretty awry.
So, what is going on here? Why is the concept of net-zero emissions under fire just as it emerges as the “North Star” for economic and industrial strategy in many of the world’s most powerful economies? And does it matter? Will well-intentioned critiques of demonstrably inadequate net-zero strategies catalyze more ambitious decarbonization plans or will they inadvertently undermine a trend that has helped successfully push climate issues up the corporate and political agenda?
The first thing to say is that much of the criticism of net-zero strategies from Thunberg, Dyke, Watson, Knorr, et al is entirely justified.
There is an old jokey disclaimer deployed by journalists where we protest that we “don’t write the headlines.” It is a defense against the condemnation that comes our way when an eager subeditor uses a headline to overstate or simplify the details contained in the rest of an article. Last month’s long read in The Conversation is something of a case in point. The headline may bluntly describe net-zero as a “dangerous trap,” but the article itself offers a nuanced and in-depth assessment of the risks attached to the net-zero concept. It acknowledges the goal of ensuring residual emissions of greenhouse gases are balanced by technologies to remove them from the atmosphere is “a great idea, in principle,” just as it accepts how “in principle there is nothing wrong or dangerous about carbon dioxide removal proposals.”
But it also warns that the net-zero narrative’s focus on negative emissions technologies and techniques — all of which face massive technological, economic and land use challenges when used at scale — risks being used to justify continued investment in fossil fuel infrastructure and distract from the urgent need to deliver “sustained radical cuts to greenhouse gas emissions in a socially just way.” Amen to all of that.
It is possible to disagree with the authors’ belief that “net-zero has licensed a recklessly cavalier ‘burn now, pay later’ approach which has seen carbon emissions continue to soar” and share their concerns that emerging negative emissions technologies and techniques, such as biomass with carbon capture and storage, direct air carbon capture, mass nature-based solutions and even geo-engineering, can be used to bolster the business case for extremely high risk investments in new fossil fuel infrastructure.
It is possible to reject the idea that net-zero policies are primarily designed to perpetuate business as usual and still share the fears of Dyke et al that such policies in their current guise are often poorly defined, insufficiently ambitious and inadequately policed. It is possible to think Thunberg’s attacks on net-zero goals could prove counterproductive if they are not very carefully targeted and still think she is one of the best things to happen to the environmental movement in years and a vital voice holding governments and businesses to account.
Every one of the prospective negative emissions industries — whether they are focused on tree-planting or mechanically scrubbing the atmosphere of its CO2 — face immense technical, financial and political barriers hampering their adoption at scale.
As analyses from the likes of Carbon Tracker and CDP repeatedly have stressed, many net-zero pledges put forward by the world’s leading carbon intensive corporates and investors are deeply flawed and are not backed by credible strategies to wind down fossil fuel infrastructure and pivot towards clean technologies at sufficient pace. These inadequate strategies have been enabled by the continuing failure to establish clear standards that properly define what delivering net-zero emissions entails — a problem that was highlighted recently by Mark Carney’s quickly repudiated suggestion that a portfolio containing fossil fuel-related assets could describe itself as “net-zero” so long as it also invested in renewables.
Meanwhile, at the national level you would be hard pressed to find a government with a genuinely comprehensive net-zero strategy. The U.K. was the first major economy to set a net-zero target, has the most impressive decarbonization track record of any industrialized country, and has just set some of the world’s most ambitious medium-term emissions goals. And yet the government is still tying itself in knots as it combines support for a world-leading renewables industry and a relatively rapid phase out of internal combustion engine vehicles with plans for a new coal mine and a refusal to rule out a fresh wave of North Sea oil and gas exploration.
Against this backdrop Thunberg’s fear net-zero targets can be used as cover for continued investment in fossil fuel assets is completely legitimate and understandable. As Dyke et al argue every one of the prospective negative emissions industries — whether they are focused on tree-planting or mechanically scrubbing the atmosphere of its CO2 — face immense technical, financial, and political barriers hampering their adoption at scale.
And yet they are routinely factored into official decarbonization models at both a governmental and corporate level, disguising the fact there is a very real risk these negative emissions strategies could fail and necessitate even steeper emissions cuts to deliver on the goals of the Paris Agreement. It amounts to an extremely high risk, perhaps even reckless strategy, even before you consider the existential dread that comes with recent news from the IEA that global emissions are already spiraling back towards pre-pandemic levels.
The entire global economy continues to resemble an obese man ordering a box of doughnuts because he has just read that a diet pill trial has delivered some modestly encouraging results.
And yet, I can’t help feel these legitimate critiques of the weaknesses of various net-zero strategies risk tipping over into a knee-jerk dismissal of the concept as a whole — a concept that will be right at the heart of any attempt to avert a climate catastrophe, regardless of the rhetorical framing deployed.
The elision of “net-zero” and “not zero” may be largely confined to social media, but as it gathers momentum it risks tarnishing the credibility of all the myriad good faith attempts to harness a portfolio of solutions to slash emissions as quickly as possible and deliver on the goals of the Paris Agreement. A blanket dismissal of the net-zero concept demands not that polluters come forward with credible strategies that could work in both principle and in practice, but rather fuels the impression any and all plans are “greenwash” and are not worthy of consideration.
Counterintuitively, it establishes a discourse that makes life easier for “greenwashers” and makes it harder to distinguish between those net-zero strategies that will help the world deliver on its climate goals and those that nefariously seek to delay meaningful action.
Dyke et al allege net-zero targets “were and still are driven by a need to protect business as usual, not the climate.” It is a serious charge to level at the architects of the Paris Agreement and the many businesses around the world striving to transform themselves as part of an epoch-shaping attempt to drive the fastest industrial revolution in history. It is certainly true of some net-zero strategies. But it is a funny sort of business as usual that has in the space of five years helped create a scenario where the bulk of the global auto industry is publicly committed to electrifying all their models, renewables are the default source of new capacity in most markets around the world, coal companies are going bankrupt and oil majors are totting up their write-downs, national climate laws are being rushed onto statute books, the public is routinely demanding climate action is treated as a top priority and billions of dollars of R&D funding is flowing into green aviation and shipping, smart grids and energy storage, and, yes, nature-based carbon sinks and carbon capture and use technologies.
This edging away from business as usual undoubtedly has come decades too late and thus far only has delivered a plateauing of global emissions. As such the sense of anger and frustration that pervades attacks on the net-zero movement is both palpable and understandable. But it is also true the Paris Agreement and the net-zero ambitions it has unleashed has established the conditions in which a shift away from coal mines, oil refineries, gas boilers, and internal combustion engines, and towards renewables, hydrogen, heat pumps and batteries looks not just possible but all but inevitable.
The world is still a long way from being on track to meet its net-zero targets, but a global emissions peak is finally within grasp. Steep emissions reductions could then follow, powered by the pursuit of those much-disparaged net-zero goals.
A blanket dismissal of the net-zero concept demands not that polluters come forward with credible strategies that could work in both principle and in practice, but rather fuels the impression any and all plans are not worthy of consideration.
It is at this point I have to acknowledge that as a defender of the net-zero concept I am somewhat compromised. BusinessGreen reports every day for a sustainable business community that has been invigorated by the net-zero trend. Back in 2018 we launched the “Net Zero Now” campaign, which I am proud to say played a small role in the successful push to get the U.K. government to put a net-zero goal on the statute book. That led to last year’s Net Zero Festival, the biggest and most commercially successful event BusinessGreen has hosted in its 14-year history. Under the banner “faster, together” the festival brought together over 1,400 people and secured support from a wide range of businesses, including some carbon intensive organizations.
If I think some criticism of net-zero strategies risks tipping over into knee-jerk anti-capitalist agitprop, is that because I’ve become “The Man”? A wind-farm-owning philanthropist hasn’t privately given me tens of thousands of pounds to renovate my flat, but I obviously have a professional interest in the success of the net-zero transition, alongside my personal desire for the biosphere to remain broadly habitable.
I accept this is a naïve aspiration in an age of social media polarization, but hopefully my declaration of interest does not detract from the wider arguments in support of the net-zero transition, because they are both wide-ranging and compelling. The recent attacks on the idea of net zero may have shone a necessary spotlight on some of the concept’s potential flaws, but they are also guilty of glossing over its many strengths.
First up, as even its detractors accept, net-zero is scientifically sound. If you want to stop the world warming, you need to stop concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere from rising. To do that you need emissions into the atmosphere and absorption of greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere to be in balance (and if you want to lower temperatures back towards pre-industrial levels you need rates of absorption that are higher than rates of emissions so as to deliver net negative or “beyond zero” emissions). It’s that simple.
You could argue that balance can be achieved by halting anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions altogether, by getting to “real zero.” But given inevitable emissions from agriculture and the huge technical difficulty of fully decarbonizing aviation and certain industrial practices within the required timeframes “real zero” targets surf the line between implausible and impossible. We can and must argue about how much greenhouse gas absorption is feasible — how big the “net” in net-zero can be. But the overarching concept is scientifically robust.
And that scientifically robust goal is at the center of the entire global framework that is attempting, in the most challenging of circumstances, to avert a climate catastrophe. Net-zero is the beating heart of both the original U.N. Climate Convention of 1992 and the Paris Agreement. Given what is at stake, the commitment to “achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century” is one of the most important lines in any treaty in human history.
As a fascinating long read from Climate Home News documented back in 2019, getting that crucial line into the final accord represented one of the biggest diplomatic coups since the Second World War. And now some observers who are close to ongoing U.N. negotiations in the runup to the crucial COP26 Summit fear blanket attacks on the net-zero concept “risk throwing the Paris Agreement under the bus just when it is getting traction.”
Real world action
The ripples that have flowed from the inclusion of a de facto net-zero target in the Paris Agreement would take a book, or more accurately a library of books, to document. But it is worth highlighting just some ways it has triggered real world climate action.
As previously mentioned, two-thirds of global GDP is generated in economies that now have some form of net-zero goal in place, but crucially in scores of countries those targets have been put on a legal footing. The U.K.’s trail-blazing Climate Change Act was strengthened in 2018 to turn a target requiring an 80 percent cut in emissions against 1990 levels into a net-zero target. France, Denmark, Sweden and New Zealand quickly followed suit. A similar new climate law from the EU soon will ensure the world’s largest market has a legal net-zero target. President Joe Biden may have no chance of getting similar legislation past Trumpist Republicans in Congress, but state governments across the U.S. are putting net-zero goals into law. China could soon follow.
For all the companies simply setting fantastical multi-decadal net-zero targets and chucking money at questionable carbon offset firms, many more are approaching this endeavor in good faith.
Putting net-zero targets onto statute books has real legal and institutional value. As the U.K. has demonstrated, it informs ministers’ day-to-day policy decisions on pain of legal challenge, it provides a legislative underpinning for the net-zero mandates that subsequently have been awarded to the Bank of England, numerous key regulators and the proposed National Infrastructure Bank, and it hands civil society a legal stick with which to batter current and future governments if they start to miss decarbonization goals.
It also provides an explicit signal to businesses and investors that the net zero transition is non-negotiable and irreversible, providing them with greater confidence that while decarbonization policies may be reformed over time they will persist through multiple parliamentary cycles.
Businesses have responded with literally thousands of new net zero targets and strategies. The U.N.-backed Race to Zero campaign includes more than 2,100 businesses, 120 investors, 20 regions and 500 universities. The Net Zero Asset Owners Alliance hold $5.7 trillion of assets, the Net Zero Asset Managers Initiative boasts nearly 90 signatories with $37 trillion of assets under management. The investors and blue chips that are leading this charge are already exploring how to use their lobbying, shareholder and purchasing power to ensure net zero strategies spread through their labyrinthine portfolios and supply chains.
Thunberg is right: Some of these businesses are attempting to game the net-zero system and use long term climate goals to protect the fraying social license that allows them to continue to pollute.
But for all the companies simply setting fantastical multi-decadal net-zero targets and chucking money at questionable carbon offset firms, many more are approaching this endeavor in good faith. They are setting hugely ambitious emissions targets for five and 10 years hence. They are investing billions of dollars in deploying renewables, developing zero emission transport technologies, pioneering the manufacture of green steel and completely reimagining their operating models. They are serious when they say they want to drive a purpose-led Green Industrial Revolution, partly because it is the right thing to do, partly because that is where the biggest commercial opportunities of the 21st century lie and partly because they know as well as any climate scientist that 3-plus degrees Celsius of warming would be catastrophic.
Enlightened self-interest is an actual thing.
Moreover, the pioneers in this transition are, as in all industrial transitions throughout history, sparking a snowball-effect as they start to outcompete their more conservative rivals. Studies detailing how clean tech and sustainable businesses outperform their rivals abound. Net-zero targets at the national level beget net-zero targets at the corporate level, which helps drive net-zero technology development, which in turn helps enable more ambitious net-zero policies that serve to accelerate net-zero technology deployment, which forces more companies to adopt credible net-zero targets.
At the same time, net-zero investment goals require even carbon intensive companies to disclose their climate risks and come forward with their own net-zero strategies. The robustness of those strategies will be assessed by investors and financiers and, as credit rating giant Moody’s noted in late April, inform the cost of capital for carbon intensive projects, further ramping up pressure on polluters to deliver credible net-zero strategies. There are now more interlocking virtuous circles in play than a Bridget Riley retrospective.
These complex changes have been most evident in the European electricity market where renewables have come to dominate and fossil fuel majors have seen value destroyed, but the same dynamics are well underway in other energy markets around the world and, crucially, in the global auto market. Multiple other sectors soon will start to follow the same playbook.
A key thing missed by the blanket critiques of net-zero is the combination of the concept’s catalyzing effect and the way in which it is a dynamic process, not a solid state. Some companies may miss their net-zero goals or overstate their efficacy, but others will pull forward their target dates and rapidly minimize their reliance on carbon sinks and credits. For example, currently a steel company that wants to claim net-zero status would have to invest millions in carbon offset schemes, but as soon as effective green steel production techniques are shown to be viable at scale, that will change and the sector will have to eradicate its direct emissions. Steel producers will want to make this transition, partly because of the reputational flak they would take for remaining reliant on offsets, but mainly because they would want to rid themselves of a massive bill funding carbon sinks in perpetuity.
Meanwhile, the governance architecture for net-zero targets is improving all the time. For example, the Institutional Investors Group on Climate Change (IIGCC) recently published a detailed new framework setting out how investors could develop net zero portfolio strategies that deliver real world emissions reductions. And in late April, the Race to Zero campaign strengthened its criteria for companies signed up to the campaign to clarify the need for robust interim targets, immediate action to cut emissions and the role of carbon sinks in addressing only residual emissions.
It could be argued these efforts were prompted by the recent public attacks on the credibility of net-zero targets, but Race to Zero’s work with Oxford University to strengthen the criteria predates the latest critiques. The truth is there is widespread understanding of the net-zero transition’s potential weak spots and lots of work underway to try to shore up any cracks in the strategy that could be exploited by bad actors. The next decade will see a wave of standards, guidelines and regulations that will both drive further investment in net-zero infrastructure and marginalize those businesses that want to use net zero targets to keep on polluting. “Trust but verify,” as President Barack Obama used to say.
We are, as in all human discourse, arguing about definitions. What constitutes an “unavoidable” or “residual” emission? What amounts to a “credible” carbon offset or sink? Only with those definitions established can a firm conclusion be reached as to which industries should aim for net-zero emissions and which have to fully decarbonize. It is right and proper that this debate proceeds, but it should be possible to have it without undermining the entire concept of a net-zero transition.
This work in defense of net-zero is vital because it serves to entrench a concept blessed with characteristics that explain why it has proved so much more effective than previous attempts to push climate action up the political and corporate agenda, which have, to put it bluntly, largely failed.
It is true that part of the success of the net-zero narrative lies in fortuitous timing. It emerged at a time when clean technologies had matured to a point where they could finally compete on cost with fossil fuel incumbents, when climate impacts had become so tragically visible that denialist narratives were left looking absurd, and when a vast majority of the public finally awoke to the true scale of the crisis. The world was ready.
Even when net-zero strategies are flawed, incomplete and perhaps even intended as deliberate greenwash, they still can help drive down emissions and marginalize fossil fuels.
But the net-zero concept also has three inherent strengths. Firstly, as many commentators have noted, net-zero is all encompassing. Just a few years ago when the U.K. had a target to cut emissions by 80 percent by 2050, it was possible for carbon intensive sectors to convince themselves they would be responsible for the remaining 20 percent of emissions and as such did not really have to engage with decarbonization. This is not a theoretical fear; it is what actually happened.
Critics of the net-zero concept argue there should be more focus on more ambitious short-term emissions targets, and they are right: there should. But almost no matter how ambitious you get, the same problem occurs without an overarching net-zero framework. If you somehow managed to engineer a peaceful political revolution that saw an 80 percent cut in emissions by 2030 target adopted, then without a longer term net-zero target to back it up the aviation and oil industries would revert to arguing that the remaining 20 percent of the carbon budget should belong to them.
It could be argued that net-zero simply has shifted this argument on to new territory. Now heavy emitters are hoping to carve up the “net” n net-zero and secure “negative emissions” for their industry. Again, this is a legitimate concern, but it also represents massive progress that has catalyzed long-delayed investment in technologies that could decarbonize hard to abate industries while providing seed investment for those negative emissions industries that, like it or not, are going to be needed. With short-term emissions targets airlines and fossil fuel giants can argue they have a pass, with short-term emissions and net-zero targets they have to at least start to engage with the idea of deep decarbonization. Many are going far beyond starting to engage and are investing heavily in the technologies that could yet make the most carbon intensive sectors net-zero compatible.
Secondly, net-zero is already remarkably popular and well understood, especially given the huge complexity those two short words belie. As Tim Lord, a former top civil servant and current senior fellow for net-zero at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, observed recently, “net-zero is a term that’s relatively easy to understand — and public/consumer understanding is reasonably high, at least compared to some of the other jargon we use on climate and energy.” The most recent U.K. government Public Attitudes Tracker found that in December 76 percent of people were aware of the concept of “net zero,” up from 52 percent in March 2020. It is a level of name recognition most politicians or brands would kill for.
And thirdly, net-zero strategies do not have to be 100 percent perfect to still deliver meaningful and rapid progress. Even when net-zero strategies are flawed, incomplete and perhaps even intended as deliberate greenwash, they can still help drive down emissions and marginalize fossil fuels.
As Freuds’ CEO Arlo Brady told my colleague Cecilia Keating in late April, even the most “small and spurious” of targets have the potential to spark much-needed change within companies. “This is where that question of ‘greenwash’ gets quite nuanced,” he said. “When thinking about a theory of change within companies, I think the campaigning world has to think carefully before attacking too vocally those businesses making the right noises, even if they aren’t exactly right. Because you may inadvertently slow the transition to a more sustainable world rather than accelerate it. The way to accelerate it is to create a big tent. That is what COP26 needs to be in Glasgow, a very big tent.”
No environmentalist wants to defend fossil fuel companies given their deeply damaging, and at times outright criminal, track record. But while an oil major pumping billions of dollars into electric vehicle and renewable energy infrastructure may be engaging in a hedging strategy if you are being generous or blatant greenwash if you are not, they are still pumping billions of dollars into electric vehicle and renewable energy infrastructure. They are, inadvertently or not, helping to create the conditions for the demise of their polluting operations.
Similarly, investments in nature-based solutions or carbon capture can be used to provide cover for continued investment in fossil fuel infrastructure, but they are also laying the groundwork for an expansion of the world’s negative emissions capacity. Such investments need to be policed using everything from satellite tracking and robust regulation to public protests and covert surveillance, but it seems reckless to dismiss them out of hand just because they fit into a net-zero framework.
Some companies are undoubtedly working to game the net-zero narrative. But it is possible to envisage a scenario where even half-hearted engagement with the pursuit of net-zero targets triggers the technological developments and business model changes that suddenly bring those distant goals within reach. And that is why targeted criticism of weak net-zero strategies, as opposed to blanket criticism of the entire concept is so important. Applying constant pressure on polluters to deliver on their net-zero strategies in a credible and coherent way — to actually do what they have said they will do — has the potential to trigger either the transformation or the retirement of even the most intractable of polluting industries. Net-zero initially may be seen as an enabler of what American writer Alex Steffen calls “predatory delay,” but it could become the weapon that brings that cursed era to an end.
Ultimately, net-zero’s all encompassing nature gives it real psychological value. An overarching principle of behavior change, whether you are trying to lose weight or decarbonize a global economy, is to tell people your goal. Tie them in to your endeavor and increase the internal pressure on yourself to deliver on the expectations you have publicly set. No one wants to embarrass themselves. As Kurt Vonnegut famously observed, “We are what we pretend to be.”
Now, I am painfully aware all this risks sounding naively panglossian. Global emissions have risen since the Paris Agreement was signed. Many governments are doubling down on fossil fuel infrastructure to power their post-pandemic recoveries. We are still on track for around 3C of warming this century and even if the various net zero goals of the past few years are met — targets, lest we forget, that necessitate the fastest industrial revolution in human history — we’d still likely experience more than 2C of warming. Such a scenario would represent remarkable progress, but would still obliterate ecosystems, fuel geopolitical and economic instability and condemn millions of people to untold suffering.
One of many tragedies of working on climate change is the realization nothing is ever enough, that too much damage already has been done. In this context it is easy to see how all progress looks inadequate, because, let’s be honest, it is.
What else have ya got?
But there is one last challenge to those who dismiss net-zero as a “trap” or a “distraction,” which it is impossible to express without sounding blunt: What else have ya got?
Where is the alternative plan that is more credible than the admittedly flawed and imperfect attempt to assemble the largest coalition in human history to deploy a portfolio of solutions to first halve emissions by the 2030s, and then achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 at the latest? What is the strategy that navigates the many roadblocks in the real and political economy so as to drive the fastest transformation in the way civilization powers itself?
“Listen to the science” or “real zero” or “end capitalism” are great slogans, but they’ve been deployed for decades and pollutocratic capitalism is still here and still polluting. There are various alternative decarbonization frameworks to net-zero available, be they focused on sectoral emissions targets, shorter term goals or ever more robust political protest, but the idea that they can suddenly defeat the bad actors that are working to exploit loopholes provided by a net zero framework seems ahistorical. As Lord noted, “no matter what the terminology/objective, the problem that some people/orgs will try to debase the term, or present insufficient action as compliant with it, isn’t going away. So saying we have to be e.g. compliant with 1.5 degrees won’t solve the issue.”
The risk of net-zero targets being gamed is not really a function of the net-zero concept. It is a function of the way a fossil fuel industry that has driven the global economy for over two centuries has immense in-built political, societal and financial inertia, and orchestrating its near complete retirement within three decades is a gargantuan task. Whether you deploy net-zero or an alternative frame as your guiding principle for tackling the climate crisis, greenwashers and bad actors would still exist, sunk costs and vested interests would still wield considerable power, stranded assets and economic dislocation would still threaten to trigger a public backlash against efforts to decarbonize. This stuff is hard.
The foundations are fast being laid for a net-zero emission global economy that could yet avert climate catastrophe, whilst delivering myriad co-benefits in terms of health, quality of life and social justice.
The fact is net-zero is better at exposing such bad actors and tackling such intractable economic dilemmas than other strategies. Net-zero forces opponents of climate action to fight on the battlefield of environmentalists choosing while operating within a framework that soon will demand the complete transformation of their business models. Net-zero requires all governments, investors and businesses to plan for a long term transition and actively minimize the risk of financial and societal stranding. Net-zero is capacious enough to incorporate different technologies and political tribes, but restrictive enough to demand deep and rapid decarbonization. It is, like Winston Churchill’s democracy, “the worst form of climate action, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
Critics of net-zero strategies are right. They need to be strengthened at every turn. The world is already facing an environmental catastrophe and is not yet responding as such. Governments and corporates need to be much bolder and move much faster. Most importantly they need to recognize that while some form of negative emissions industry will emerge, that in no way precludes the need to slash direct emissions at pace and scale.
That in turn means the fossil fuel industry has to shift into wind-down mode. As such, it would good to see campaigners step up pressure for legally binding 1.5C compatible net-zero targets accompanied to be accompanied by legally binding 1.5C compatible net-zero strategies. Because while embedding the net-zero transition as the defining economic and political priority of the guarantees nothing, it does increase the likelihood of the world finally moving on to a decarbonization trajectory.
There is no alternative to net-zero. Or rather there is an alternative that doesn’t bear thinking about. As climate scientist Katherine Hayhoe has said, we will respond to the climate crisis with a mix of “mitigation, adaptation and suffering.” The pursuit of net-zero emissions provides the best hope of delivering serious mitigation. Far from isolating and exposing those looking to exploit the net zero narrative to delay climate action, indiscriminate attacks on the concept as a whole only emboldens them. Net-zero is not a “trap,” it is the only available path through the minefield.
And it’s working. Every week brings fresh evidence of survival technologies and genuinely sustainable business models being deployed. It is self-evidently true that is has come too late. With every year that passes it becomes more obvious that the failures of the Kyoto and, most egregiously, the Copenhagen Summit represent were two of the most disastrous events in modern history.
But the foundations are fast being laid for a net-zero emission global economy that could yet avert climate catastrophe, whilst delivering myriad co-benefits in terms of health, quality of life and social justice. It promises to ignite a new epoch in human affairs where we move past the extractive model that has dominated since the first human’s learnt how to harness fire and engineer something that is in genuine balance with the only habitable planet in the known universe. Something beautiful. Something worthy of the world we call home.
Will the consensus around the net-zero mission hold? It should. It has made too much progress and is too integral to modern politics and economics to fracture in the face of the first sign of criticism. It has survived Trumpism and the worst the pollutoctratic elite can throw at it. It has been one of the most successful environmental campaigns ever seen. Its strengths far outweigh its weaknesses. It is also working every day to respond to legitimate and welcome critiques of its potential flaws. But ultimately for advocates of the net-zero transition the only way to convince its detractors it offers the best route forward is to embrace the first and last rule of any successful narrative: show, don’t tell.