“Net zero” is not the answer
Corporate Accountability’s Rachel Rose Jackson discusses the “Big Con” of net zero commitments after this week’s dire IPCC findings.
Emily Sanders is the Center for Climate Integrity’s editorial lead. Catch up with her on Twitter here.
The latest report from the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change rang out a clear signal to the world: unless we act immediately to end the era of fossil fuels, we are set to breach a key warming threshold (1.5 degrees Celsius) over the next decade that will result in new irreversible and catastrophic consequences for ecosystems and people across the globe.
“This report must sound a death knell for coal and fossil fuels, before they destroy our planet,” said U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.
It’s no coincidence that amid international calls to retire fossil fuels, the world’s biggest polluters are concocting new ways to make their climate-wrecking operations appear as solutions. Enter “net-zero,” a new genre of deception in the form of so-called climate plans unveiled by oil giants like Shell and BP and proudly pondered by Chevron and Exxon. These proposals are the subject of a recent report by the human rights and environmental advocacy nonprofit group Corporate Accountability titled “The Big Con: How Big Polluters are advancing a ‘net zero’ climate agenda to delay, deceive, and deny.”
I spoke with Rachel Rose Jackson, Corporate Accountability’s Climate Research and Policy Director and one of the authors of the report. Our interview, edited for length and clarity, is below.
What is “net zero,” and why does it matter?
The idea of net zero is that we can find a balance between the greenhouse gas emissions that we put out in the atmosphere minus those that are removed and balance out to zero. But net zero isn’t zero emissions. The idea behind “net zero” is that big polluters can continue to pollute as usual, or even increase their emissions, and seek to compensate for those emissions in really very dangerous and risky ways that give us little shot at keeping global temperature rise below the 1.5 degrees Celsius threshold. Almost 1,500 corporations around the world are tripping over each other to roll out the loftiest sounding pledge to achieve “net zero” by some distant date, usually by 2050.
In the report, you lay out “four conceptual flaws” of “net zero” climate plans. What are they?
Each individual plan has its individual flaws, but the biggest failure is that these pledges are centered on far too long a timeline for a credible emissions reduction plan in line with what we need, as shown in the latest IPCC report. These net zero plans are way too little way too late, often net zero by 2050 with no interim targets — so they effectively allow for business as usual, or more than usual for decades more.
They also rely on risky and dangerous schemes to magically make emissions disappear sometime in the future, instead of doing the necessary and arguably easier work to stop polluting. And they treat emissions like a simple kindergarten math equation: a corporation emits one ton of CO2 here, and they promise to pay someone else to suck up one ton of CO2 somewhere across the world, so their hands are clean. But it’s not a simple quid pro quo, and many communities and ecosystems are being destroyed in the process.
Finally, these net zero plans ignore the simple truth that the climate crisis isn’t a problem of lacking the right technological solutions. It’s a crisis that is largely driven by a handful of rich, usually white CEOs who have invested billions in undermining the political will needed to save millions, if not billions of lives. We don’t lack the solutions we need, but governments are so often in the pockets of big polluters that we lack the policy to enact those transformations.
How does “net zero” go above and beyond simple greenwashing? What’s new about this?
On the one hand, this is the SSDD situation — same stuff, different day. These corporations are the same ones who have lied to us for more than 50 years about climate science, tried to block any meaningful action to address climate change, and then positioned themselves as the solution.
What’s different is the extent to which they’re going to to do this now, and that’s really not coincidental — in this moment of urgency, where the need for action that’s underlined in the IPCC report is greater than ever before, and the will from the people to make polluters pay for the crisis they’re causing and end fossil fuel use is also greater than ever before. So of course, we’re seeing big polluters ramping up — the writing’s on the wall, and it’s a real scramble for them to try to save themselves instead of people and the planet. It’s their attempt to orchestrate their ultimate great escape from accountability.
ExxonMobil CEO Darren Woods had previously said net zero commitments were nothing but a “beauty competition.” But now the company is floating the idea that Exxon might pledge to go net zero by 2050. What do you make of this 180 degree shift?
Exxon is the subject of multiple investigations and lawsuits for its climate crimes. If Exxon rebrands itself as a “net zero” champion, it can be seen as trying to heed public demand to change, and it can delay the inevitable transition off of fossil fuels — even just by a matter of years or decades that it can profit — instead of being held accountable tomorrow. And this underscores the fallacy of the “net zero” myth itself: given Exxon’s track record over half a century, we know it would not sign up for anything that meant it had to get serious about ending fossil fuel use and actually addressing the climate crisis.
Corporate Accountability’s report says that we should “significantly reduce emissions now in an equitable manner, bringing them close to Real Zero by 2030 at the latest.” What do we need to do to make that happen?
To me, one of the saddest things about it all is that these corporations and governments are throwing away billions of dollars trying to develop these risky technologies when we could simply put that money into finally transitioning off fossil fuels and to renewable energy systems that are controlled by the people. We could finally hold these big polluters liable, and use that money through publicly governed funds to actually address climate impacts for frontline communities.
The solutions are at the ready, are proven, are cost effective and won’t harm communities in the process. They would give us the best shot we have at heeding the warnings that are underscored in the IPCC report, transitioning off fossil fuels justly, and also creating a fairer and more equitable world in the process. We’re wasting time, endless money and political will advancing things that are only about continuing the status quo — but the real solutions are right there in front of us.
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