- The Energy Mix - https://www.theenergymix.com -

Climate Leadership Requires Better Decarbonization Pledges, Project Drawdown Warns

Any corporation or country looking to be a climate leader needs to abandon its focus on net-zero targets and craft climate pledges equal to the threat of global heating.

With the hour for climate action growing very late, real climate leaders in 2021 need to be pledging to reduce all their emissions to actual zero as quickly as possible, while helping others do the same, writes Project Drawdown Executive Director Jonathan Foley, in an opinion piece first published on Medium and recently republished on the Drawdown website.

The three remaining pillars in Foley’s proposed “Emissions 360 framework” are that carbon offsets are to be used only as last resort, historical emissions must be accounted for, and all entities making climate pledges must embrace solutions do not add further misery to marginalized or vulnerable communities.

Laying out the true scientific meaning of “net-zero,” Foley writes that, “before it was co-opted,” the term “was used by climate scientists to describe scenarios when the entire atmosphere was, on balance, no longer building up greenhouse gases.” 

“Not a company or a country,” he stresses. “The whole planet.

That’s a far cry from the current usage of “net-zero”, which, in the vast majority of cases, seems to mean ditching actual emissions cuts in favour of carbon offsets (and a lot of cooking of the books). With the net-zero concept hollowed out, those steps can be made to look like climate action, but they still have no real impact.

Proof-positive of just how dodgy these “net-zero” pledges are, Foley contends, is the fossil sector’s enthusiasm for them. 

“It’s complete bullshit, of course, but it makes for good PR,” he writes. 

Foley cites two “flavours” of carbon offsets, carbon credit schemes and carbon removal projects. The first, he warns, are a “zero-sum” game, even in the rare instances when they’re genuine and transparent. 

“Because the entire world needs to bring emissions to zero, not just a few wealthy companies, we can’t simply pay ‘someone else’ to do it forever,” he explains. “At the end of the day, there’s no one left to pay.”

Carbon removal projects, “which bank on trees, farms, oceans, and machines to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere,” are making “a very risky bet,” Foley continues. Natural carbon sinks like forests, for example, “are not infinite (and are probably smaller than many advocates claim), they take years to build, and they are only effective if we maintain them forever—never allowing them to be cleared, ploughed, or burned down.”

As for much-vaunted (and largely fantastical) carbon removal technologies, even those that work are “laughably small compared to the job at hand,” Foley writes. “Even a million-fold scale-up of carbon removal technology would only absorb a tiny percentage of our emissions.” 

All of which makes the fossil industry’s embrace of net-zero just another master class in “predatory delay,” he asserts.

What climate leaders need to do, he says, is to “look hard at your own emissions, and find ways to reduce them as quickly as possible.” Cuts that demand particular attention include reducing “short-lived warming agents like methane and black carbon,” which would “help slow climate change even more than cutting carbon dioxide.” Transparency and accountability will also be imperative, he adds: “Report how you’ve cut emissions and where you’re still struggling each year.” 

And, unless the emissions are “truly unavoidable”—such as those produced by aviation fuel, cement, and steel—“don’t even think about ‘offsets’,” or about using carbon removal schemes” to “justify the continued use of fossil fuels, bad agricultural practices, or wasteful materials,” he advises.

Any true climate leader will also support the carbon reduction efforts of others by using a social cost of carbon framework to donate “significant” money based on how much they currently pollute. That approach can help disenfranchised and vulnerable communities “reduce their emissions, become more climate resilient, and address long-standing climate justice issues.” 

But those contributions can’t be turned into a justification for continued emissions: “Just do it because it’s the right thing to do. Or count it as a business cost.”

Foley’s final pillar of climate leadership addresses the problem of historical emissions—and it is here that he does find place for carbon removal projects. 

“It may be impossible to sequester all of your historical emissions, of course—given the physical and technological limits of carbon removal,” he warns. Nonetheless, “we should do as much as we can,” spurred by the knowledge that those actions “will reduce future climate change and address the long-standing inequities in greenhouse gas emissions seen around the world.”

Foley concludes by urging a firm stance against those same inequities. “Carefully weigh issues of climate justice in everything you do,” he writes. “The rich and powerful have benefitted most from the rise of the fossil-fuelled economy, while other, disenfranchised communities—especially people of colour and those in poorer countries—paid the highest price.”