Today’s question: Net-zero targets have been all the rage for government and industry, but we’ve been hearing over the last year that “net-zero is not zero”. Where are the gaps between the spin and the substance?
Find full video of this interview here.
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Tracking the disconnect between net-zero promises by governments and industry and the actions they’re promising to make it happen is one of the toughest challenges for anyone concerned about climate change, and a big issue for negotiators at COP 26, said Catherine Abreu, executive director of Destination Zero and former executive director of Climate Action Network-Canada.
“This is really one of the questions of the moment, because there’s been such an incredible amount of momentum around net-zero pledges in the public sector, in governments, around the world,” she told The Energy Mix, in the latest in a series of #COP26TinyExplainers interviews. “And we’ve seen a lot in the private sector, as well.”
But while the announcements and promises are creating great momentum, “we also sometimes see net-zero commitments from organizations that don’t seem to actually have the intention of fulfilling that mission, who are potentially co-opting the phrase to perpetuate the status quo of our energy production and use.”
Abreu stressed that she strongly supports the basic concept—she’s a member of Canada’s Net Zero Advisory Body, and sees net-zero targets as part of the drive to hold average global warming to 1.5°C.
But that makes it all the more important to track announcements from organizations that are “just making use of this terminology to give cover for continuing to spew out emissions,” with a “dream of some kind of magical, carbon capture unicorn coming along in 2050 to save us.”
Abreu had three tips for separating sincere net-zero commitments from the greenwashed variety:
• Assess whether there’s a serious plan behind the promise, with some “real, deep thinking” about how a government, company, or institution will eliminate all its carbon pollution.
• Ask whether the plan extends across an entire economy, for a government, or a full supply chain, for a business. “That’s a really useful question to ask, because it’s only if it’s at that scale that we’re going to have the net-zero reality really emerge,” she explained. This is a whole-of-society kind of project.”
• Look at whether the emission reductions begin right away. “Part of what gets criticized with net-zero is that it’s often net-zero by 2050,” Abreu said, with all the heavy effort delayed 30 years. “If we really mean net-zero, that equals deep emission reductions today, tomorrow, and every day hereafter between now and 2050,” rather than “pushing things off and casting bets on emerging technologies.”
We asked her whether that comment pointed back to Alberta fossil companies that are focusing all their net-zero efforts on the emissions they produce by extracting and processing a barrel of oil—when about 80% of the carbon impact occurs when their product reaches its final destination and is used as directed. With so much of Canada’s oil exported, the emissions might become another country’s responsibility under UN carbon accounting rules—but they still go into the atmosphere and help drive global heating.
“This is another element of the net-zero conversation that is worth delving into, and perhaps another element of the suspicion” around the concept, Abreu said. If every country commits to net-zero but assumes it can continue extracting and burning fossil fuels as usual, “you very quickly get to see that net-zero is an impossibility. Not everyone can externalize and offset their emissions, and that means no one can. Everyone has to take responsibility for their own emissions and drive them as close to zero as possible.”
If Canadian fossils’ net-zero calculations miss the “huge piece of the pie” in the emissions they export, and every other company and business does the same, “then what we’re counting is meaningless,” she added. “That’s a part of the net-zero dialogue that we maybe haven’t matured very well into yet, because it’s too new.”