Net Zero is Greenwash - Don't be Fooled
By Stuart Smith
There is a lot of talk these days from people advocating we should be trying to achieve Net Zero carbon emissions as soon as possible to stop the planet heating up even further. However most of this is greenwash, it's meaningless or deception, it's a global con being used by fossil fuel industries to continue doing what they are doing. What we should be talking about is Zero Carbon, or as close to it as we can get.
What does net zero mean? The official explanation.
Net zero carbon emissions refers to achieving an overall balance between greenhouse gas emissions produced and greenhouse gas emissions taken out of the atmosphere. It's like a set of scales: producing greenhouse gas emissions tips the scales one way, and we want to get those scales back into balance with no new greenhouse gas being added. Once we stop emitting greenhouse gases from fossil fuels, we still need to deal with all the emissions we've already pumped into the atmosphere over the years. That's the difference between zero carbon and net zero.
Another way of thinking about it.
You go on a 50 mile journey by motor car fuelled by petrol or diesel. You will emit Co2 emissions as a result of that journey. To make the trip net zero you have to take all those emissions you have created out of the atmosphere. How? It is suggested that you plant a tree. But, trees take time to grow and start taking emissions out of the atmosphere, which will be in about 10 years from planting. That's a long time to pay back that single car journey and gain net zero.
Many companies are trying to pursue Net Zero using carbon offset schemes, planting trees for example. To do that at the scale necessary will not help people in poorer countries where farming land is likely to be taken over by big corporations for tree planting and will take many years. In addition, global warming and climate change will alter the land available for planting trees and the type of trees that can be planted. Single tree species generic forest plantations anyone?
Getting to net zero means we can still produce some emissions, as long as they are offset by processes that reduce greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere, like drawdown technologies such as direct air capture. The more emissions that are produced, the more carbon dioxide we will eventually need to remove from the atmosphere (this is called sequestration) to reach net zero.
Companies are falling over themselves to tell us they will contribute to net zero and the UK Government is working to persuade more and more countries to sign up to net zero targets before the UN climate talks in Glasgow.
Some of the talk about net zero is well meaning and will indeed drive real emissions reductions. But a lot of it is greenwash, a deliberate smokescreen to delay serious action.
A recent report shows why we should be very sceptical about claims for net-zero plans. These plans can be based on technology that may never develop, offset schemes that could never be big enough or simple ignoring most of your emissions in the first place.
Many of you will be familiar with criticism of governments, including our own two, which tell us that carbon capture and storage and related technical fixes will be the answer, when they are a decade away at any scale, if they happen at all.
As for carbon offset schemes. Those that involve planting trees would need to be rolled out on a massive scale to let companies and countries keep on burning fossil fuels.
Globally, carbon offset plantations would become a new cash crop, with poorer countries displacing people and agriculture to make hard cash from selling offsets. It's nearly a decade since Interpol warned that carbon trading was ripe for crime and they have helped catch many fraudsters since. But even an honest scheme only works if the trees continue to grow for many years, ironically something hard to guarantee in a world with a rapidly changing climate.
The North Sea oil industry claims they are working towards net zero while blithely ignoring the emissions that result from their customers burning their oil and gas.
Everybody claims to be green these days but what the planet needs is actual zero carbon emissions, not the messy nightmare that is net zero.
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