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Leon Kaye headshot

The Net-Zero Train Has Derailed, Say Critics

By Leon Kaye

As companies feel the pressure to decarbonize in the coming decade, many have announced what they say are bold plans to go net-zero, often by 2030 to 2050. As a concept, net-zero is relatively simple: negate those carbon emissions, the bulk of which can be done by mechanisms like carbon offsets or such tactics as sequestration. Setting a net-zero timeline is the easy part; what’s difficult is actually achieving those far-off goals.

On one hand, setting a goal nine years into the future can come across as sitting on one’s climate action hands when it’s pretty clear that if we’re not past the point of no return, we’re almost there. A flip side to that argument is that even if a government or company can’t achieve its net-zero goals, the setting of such a bold plan forces a different way of doing business or completing everyday tasks, a process that becomes more efficient, sustainable or innovative – or all of the above.

But a recent report casts doubt on whether this plethora of net-zero plans can even make a difference, and in fact, there could be a huge risk that these can generate even more harm to people and the planet.

Corporate Accountability, Friends of the Earth International and the Global Forest Coalition recently issued a report that describes net-zero plans as offering “little or nothing in the way of real solutions or real effective emissions cuts.”

From these three NGOs’ point of view – and the several dozen additional organizations that endorsed this report - many businesses hopping aboard the net-zero bandwagon are falling far short of achieving any kind of meaningful climate action. In addition, the larger problem, write the report’s authors, is that net-zero is a way of generating profits. “Furthermore… [businesses] see the potential for a ‘net zero’ global pathway to provide new business opportunities for them, rather than curtailing production and consumption of their polluting products,” says the report’s authors.

The groups don’t hold back in their criticism of net-zero strategies, as summed up in the report’s title: “The Big Con.”

So, what’s the problem, one may ask?

The report’s authors lay out a long list of tactics that drive many net-zero technologies, which they sum up as “smokescreens.” They include: bio-energy (they call it, “burning trees or biomass); carbon capture and storage (mostly used to extract what was previously inaccessible oil reserves underground, says the report); carbon markets (“proven to lead to fraud and speculation, and haven’t substantially reduced emissions”); and carbon offsets (“often displace communities” that they are supposed to benefit).

If this sounds like yet another long list full of criticisms of energy companies, that is partly true – some of the world’s most recognizable fossil fuel producers are called out in the report. But those companies are also joined by their peers in the aviation, financial, retail and food sectors.

The authors don’t hold back to sharing how, from their point of view, these companies are simply moving ahead, business as usual, cloaked behind a “net-zero” veneer. In what the report describes as major “failings,” the behaviors run the gamut from the issuing of commitments too vague to mean anything at all to a reliance on unproven technologies and finally, an outright and blatant rejection of systemic change.

Some of the culprits that allow these companies’ behavior to continue unnoticed aren’t surprising: Corporate Lobbying, for example, is an obvious one. The next step after lobbying is having policymakers, as well as leaders within the United Nations, buy into a net-zero agenda. But the report is particularly scathing in its criticism of the leading universities that have accepted hundreds of millions of dollars that funded net-zero research that led to results those same companies were hoping for in the first place.

Now that the climate denial kraken is close to being slain, this report concludes another one has emerged, one that is scuttling any meaningful progress on climate change – and this kraken has “net-zero” tattooed all over it.

At a first glance, the answers are ones that many corporate boards won’t hear of, as in listening to what citizens want, i.e. “listen to the people” and pushing a strategy centered on climate justice.

The first suggestion is problematic, as the reality is that many people say they want to fight climate change until they realize changing their day-to-day behavior is part of that solution. That’s a long-term battle, one involving education, consumer awareness and all-around persistence. The second, well, until corporate boards and C-suites become more diverse not only by gender, race and ethnicity, but also by leaders who offer different perspectives, don’t hold your breath for bold “climate justice” plans. Nevertheless, at least one event that occurred last month offers some hope.

The solutions to this net-zero dilemma aren’t directly mentioned in this report, but they are around us already – and these aren’t untested or problematic technologies such as direct air capture or fossil-based hydrogen. Instead, they include tactics such as more investments in renewables, ending subsidies for fossil fuels, and an assurance from companies that environmental justice principles are aligned with business decisions. And finally, deploy those strategies in the places that can at first absorb them first: as in wealthier nations.

Image credit: Andreas Felske/Unsplash

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

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