Net zero: winning strategy or false sense of security?

Net zero is powerful as a rallying message but we must be more aware of who gets to make use of the ‘net’, argues Clare Wildfire, technical principal and global practice leader for cities, Mott MacDonald By Clare Wildfire | July 21, 2021

The science is clear: we need to urgently cut global carbon emissions to slow climate change and its increasingly destructive effects. Achieving net zero – where we remove as much carbon from the atmosphere as we emit – is the only way to slow and ultimately halt global warming, which is being caused by the ‘greenhouse effect’ of carbon dioxide and equivalent greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere.

But is net zero truly a winning strategy, or is it giving a false sense of security? This was the provocation explored by two rival teams in a lively debate held on July 1 2021, as part of London Climate Action Week.

Leading the team in support of net zero was Mike Thompson, chief economist and director of analysis at the Climate Change Committee, the UK government’s climate advisory body. He spoke of the “simpler, more engaging argument” it provides.

“Net zero has given us clarity – everything has to go,” said Thompson. “Before, we had an 80% emissions reduction target [against a 1990 emissions baseline], but it allowed people to think they could leave the hard work to others. Now, with a 100% target, everybody knows they need to get their emissions down. This has been key to building interest, momentum and enthusiasm.”

Thompson added that a net zero target had helped to get public buy-in and support for political action to reduce emissions.

“More public interest breeds political pressure, which means more scrutiny and action. Net zero has turbocharged all that.”

Hiding behind offsets

Sarah Colenbrander, director of the climate and sustainability programmes at ODI, a global affairs think-tank, led the team arguing that net zero had instilled a false sense of security.

“The biggest oil and mining companies, and some of the Middle East’s biggest oil producing countries, have all announced net zero targets – though they confine their commitments to their operations,” Colenbrander said. “None of them are pledging to end fossil fuel production, so it’s clear that in these cases, the net zero target serves as a fig leaf for business-as-usual.”

She argued that the concept of net zero allows the carbon emissions of essential industries such as aviation and steel production – where it is technically difficult or prohibitively expensive to eradicate all emissions – to be balanced through carbon offset projects. However, the energy sector has no such excuses, as we know we can scale up clean energy.

“The rest of us need to move beyond net zero targets and head for actual zero.”

Her teammate John Carstensen, leader for climate-smart development at Mott MacDonald, agreed that “net zero is being gamed” by organizations such as oil companies and airports whose plans for net zero do not currently take into account their products (oil/flights).

He added that a global net zero strategy allows for low- and middle-income countries to produce some emissions via low carbon development pathways to meet social development needs. However, companies in advanced economies are offsetting their emissions by buying a substantial share of the limited global capacity for carbon sequestration. This provides less room for emerging economies to offset emissions resulting from the creation of essential infrastructure, making it difficult to hit the world’s 1.5°C trajectory – which requires global net zero by 2070.

“The key problem with net zero is the reliance on speculative negative emissions in the future instead of action today,” he said. “To ensure social and climate justice, negative emissions [achieved through carbon offset projects] must be kept to an absolute minimum. Advanced economies must commit to greater decarbonisation, with more funding for developing countries to meet their development needs.”

A boost to localism

Net zero should be used to deliver value to local communities, said Polly Billington, chief executive officer of UK100, a network of local authority leaders committed to combating climate change. “Net zero should focus minds. Why [should organizations] pay money on offsets to someone else, somewhere else, when they can invest in their own communities?”

Investing in climate action in the UK could lead to 800,000 green jobs by 2030, rising to 1.3m by 2050, she said.

“I’m not interested in scaring people about the dangers of climate change without giving them an alternative,” she said. “It is better to frame net zero in terms of growing the health, wealth and wellbeing of communities. We have the opportunity to transform our communities in a way that builds public consensus and political will.”

A rallying message

All of the panellists agreed that public awareness and engagement are crucial to achieve decarbonization. Net zero provides a clear message that people can rally around.

“Net zero captures the public imagination,” said Thompson. “Setting a 2035 target of 78% emissions reductions is arguably more radical than a net zero target by 2050 – but most people can’t engage with that, they just hear noise about targets. People do engage with net zero.

As a supporter of net zero, my overall take-away from the debate is that controlling who gets to make use of the ‘net’ part of the equation is vital as we evolve our UK and global response to the net zero challenge in an equitable way.

Mott MacDonald is proud to be Industry Partner of the Sustainable Innovation Forum 8-10 November 2021. To register for this free online event visit Registration | Sustainable Innovation Forum | COP26 (climateaction.org)

The UN High Level Champions and Oxford Net Zero have designed a toolkit to help us all understand what a credible net zero commitment looks like, and which commitments lack the substance needed to deliver a zero carbon world in time.

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