What, exactly, is “zero”? If that sounds like a Zen koan, it’s not. It’s a foundational question behind what appears to be a coming onslaught by environmental advocacy groups to name and shame net-zero greenwashers.
For the past two years, and especially the past 12 months, hundreds of companies and governments around the world have made net-zero carbon emissions their sustainability North Star. It’s a positive step, to be sure: an ambitious, aspirational, even audacious goal, usually made at the highest organizational level, to drastically reduce or eliminate its contribution to the climate crisis.
These net-zero commitments align with the goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement as well as a 2018 finding by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: In order to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, the world must halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and achieve net-zero emissions by mid-century.
The urgency ratcheted up last week with a report from the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change stating that even with increased efforts by some countries, the combined impact falls far short of what is needed to reach the 1.5 degree goal. The United Nations called it "a red alert for our planet."
Hence, net-zero corporate commitments to the rescue. At least, that’s the intention. The reality is far more complex — and sometimes far less impressive. And, based on recent reports and my conversations with environmental advocacy groups, efforts to call out companies on their subpar net-zero commitments are just ramping up.
Companies may be relying far too much on 'net' and far too little on 'zero.'
Consider a new report from Friends of the Earth International, which calls net-zero "a smokescreen, a conveniently invented concept that is both dangerous and problematic because of how effectively it hides inaction."
One problem, the authors suggest, is that many net-zero commitments assume that a company will continue to emit greenhouse gases long into the future, relying largely on offsets to negate its climate impacts.
"Fake zero strategies rely on offsets, rather than real emission reductions," say the authors. "Real zero strategies require emissions to really go to zero, or as close to zero as possible."
But reducing vs. offsetting is only part of the problem.
I’ve been perusing the recent reports and, although I read them with the same journalistic skepticism that I bring to corporate and governmental documents, the advocacy groups make a lot of sense — and do so without the gauzy verbiage often used by companies. Among other things, the activists explain the concept of net-zero in a way that is clear and concise and based in science, not CSR or ESG.
A sampling from Friends of the Earth:
The basic concept of "net zero" can be captured in an equation: greenhouse gas emissions minus removals of greenhouse gases, balancing out to zero. To reach zero, emissions over a period of time cannot be greater than the amount of CO2 that can be taken out of the atmosphere over that same period of time.
It continues: "Whether or not we can get to zero is not all that matters in thinking about the implications of this equation," noting that "100 minus 100" and "10 minus 10" both equal zero. Thus, "The first element in the equation is obviously more important than the second." The fewer tons emitted, the better.
The problems with many net-zero strategies are well-known: They assume that still-unproven carbon-removal technologies will be operating cost-efficiently at scale by some future date. They can require "devastating land grabs" from Indigenous peoples and local communities, mainly in the Global South, to plant trees and enable other nature-based solutions. Because ecosystems can be cut down or lost to wildfire, drought and other things, their carbon-storage potential can be impermanent, thereby undermining a company’s offset calculations. Some commitments rely primarily on a firm’s own emissions and purchased energy — Scope 1 and 2, in carbon-speak — and not enough on their supply chains — Scope 3. And the time horizons — net-zero by 2050 is typical — may put off accountability until it’s too late to change course.
And, not least: Such strategies can shift the burden from emissions reductions to offsets, effectively giving license to companies to pollute endlessly well into the future during a time when emissions should be quickly ramping down.
Put another way, companies may be relying far too much on "net" and far too little on "zero."
Beyond pretty pix
Activists don’t seem to care much for nature-based solutions, a key component of corporate net-zero strategies. "Right now, the only approaches to deliver real carbon removal are based in nature: ecosystem restoration and ecological management of working forests, croplands and grasslands," noted Friends of the Earth. This, it says, enables companies to "continue to emit at scale, hiding their inaction behind nice-sounding ‘net zero’ pledges and beautiful photos of ‘nature-based’ offset projects. ‘Nature’ is called on to provide a ‘solution’ to their desire to continue with emissions as usual."
It concludes: "This house of cards will go up in flames, with all of us in it."
Help may be on the way. Last fall, the Science-Based Targets initiative proposed a framework for "science-based net-zero target setting" and last week completed a five-month public comment period. The final criteria are expected to cover such issues as boundary setting, transparency, timeframes, accountability and other factors.
This house of cards will go up in flames, with all of us in it.
But net-zero may not even be the be-all, end-all it’s thought to be. "Hitting net-zero is not enough," wrote the international youth activist organization Worldward in a letter published in the Guardian in November. It advocated a more ambitious goal, "climate restoration," proclaiming: "We urge activists to start including restoration in their campaigning."
Advocacy groups, for their part, are honing their messaging. Expect to see growing campaigns to target companies whose net-zero commitments are deemed to be wanting.
I’ll give the last word here to another youth activist, Greta Thunberg (although, given that she’s now 18, we probably should drop the "youth" moniker). As she admonished the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting last year in Davos, Switzerland:
We're not telling you to keep talking about reaching net-zero emissions or carbon neutrality by cheating and fiddling around with numbers. We're not telling you to offset your emissions by just paying someone else to plant trees in places like Africa, while at the same time forests like the Amazon are being slaughtered at an infinitely higher rate. …
And let's be clear, we don't need a low-carbon economy. We don't need to lower emissions. Our emissions have to stop if we are to have a chance to stay below the 1.5-degree target. And until we have the technologies that at scale can put our emissions to minus, that we must forget about net zero. We need real zero.
Will "real zero" become the next-next thing for climate leaders? If it’s up to some, that term will define what "zero" really means.