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Riya Anne Polcastro headshot

Net Zero Loses its Meaning as Fossil Fuel Industry Plays Carbon Trading Games

The net zero movement has long been losing steam, and among various problems, it has been co-opted by some of the largest polluters out there.
net zero

Lakes, rivers, reservoirs and other bodies of water are evaporating, running dry before our very eyes. Floods are washing out natural areas, neighborhoods and even entire regions across the globe. Hurricanes are pummeling coastlines. Forests are burning at unprecedented rates around the world — from worsening fire seasons as well as intentional destruction in the name of growth. Islands are sinking. Populations are losing their homes and their livelihoods. People are dying. Transitioning to a carbon-neutral society isn’t just some lofty goal for corporations to tout to ESG investors — it is imperative for our survival on this planet. And yet – according to a joint report by the Global Forest Coalition, Corporate Accountability and Friends of the Earth International – net zero has been co-opted by some of the worst polluters out there. As such, these initiatives act as public relations stunts for corporations while failing to deliver legitimate reductions in carbon emissions and all the while preventing any actual accountability.

“The ‘net-zero’ political agenda continues to be manipulated by Big Polluters across sectors. They are advancing an illusion of climate action that in reality masks the intention to continue to pollute, locking us into decades of climate catastrophe,” as the report — aptly titled Conflicted Beyond Credibility — begins. The analysis focuses on what the authors refer to as “three of the most prominent net zero initiatives,” Race to Zero, the High-Level Expert Group on the NetZero Emissions Commitments of Non-State Entities (HLEG) and the Integrity Council for the Voluntary Carbon Market. What they found goes a long way toward explaining the lack of real progress toward controlling emissions: The three groups have boards and expert panels made up of fossil fuel industry insiders.

HLEG’s board is rife with industry insiders and executives while Race to Zero is essentially an alliance of fossil fuel financiers. The Integrity Council’s board includes not only representatives of major financiers, but the Chair is a Senior Counsel whose firm represents the fossil fuel industry directly. It’s no surprise then that, in the words of the report’s authors, “all of these initiatives have major loopholes that fail to hold Big Polluters and Global North countries accountable for the action needed in order to avoid environmental and societal collapse.”

The authors of Conflicted Beyond Credibility are quick to point out that the strategies used by these initiatives allow polluters to essentially write their own rules and avoid the consequences of their continued inaction. They’re doing so largely through the promotion of going all-in on carbon trading markets. And while these markets might look good on paper — allowing corporations to claim their emissions will reach net zero — in reality they do nothing to reduce the amount of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. Instead, polluters can continue to do business as usual under the guise that their imaginary offsets in the ocean or the forests are cleaning up their mess.

But that mess isn’t going anywhere. The natural world is not a giant sink. As Indigenous leaders from Global Alliance recently have pointed out, “we cannot plant trees to escape climate disaster.” The planet doesn’t have time to wait on carbon trading games.

Rather, as U.N. secretary general António Guterres put during yesterday’s launch of COP27: “We are in the fight of our lives and we are losing … And our planet is fast approaching tipping points that will make climate chaos irreversible.” He called for lowering greenhouse gas emissions through clean energy and technology — citing the closing window of opportunity to make drastic change. “We are on a highway to climate hell with our foot on the accelerator.”

But allowing an industry bent on profit at any expense to police itself will not stomp the brakes at the rate at which the world needs, and it will not bring us back from the brink. Net zero is meaningless if it is achieved only in a carbon trading ledger. Climate experts have been more than clear — emissions must cease.

Image credit: Marek Piwnicki via Unsplash

Riya Anne Polcastro headshot

Riya Anne Polcastro is an author, photographer and adventurer based out of Baja California Sur, México. She enjoys writing just about anything, from gritty fiction to business and environmental issues. She is especially interested in how sustainability can be harnessed to encourage economic and environmental equity between the Global South and North. One day she hopes to travel the world with nothing but a backpack and her trusty laptop.

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