Talk of “net zero carbon” emissions assumes future innovations will save us from the need to make big changes now. This blog by Tony Whitbread considers the risks we face by continuing with business as usual.

“Net zero” carbon dioxide (CO2) is the idea that if you balance the amount of CO2 you emit against the amount you lock up (or sequester) then your net emissions will be zero. So if you can’t stop all your emissions, you might be able to balance these by locking up carbon, for example, by carbon absorbing technologies and planting trees.

Superficially this seems a good idea.  It is unlikely that we can stop every last gramme of CO2 emissions.  So if we balance these last difficult-to-avoid emissions against plans to lock up carbon, then we should be ok.  Habitats lock up carbon, so one good effect might be that we start to recognise the importance of nature-based solutions to the climate crisis.  And new technologies are promised to draw carbon out of the atmosphere.

How carbon offsets work in theory

Yet this apparently good idea is at best a dangerous deflection.

The reality is that the world has a carbon budget that we can’t afford to exceed if we wish to keep the global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. At current emissions we will use up this budget in less than 10 years.  Aiming for “net zero by 2050” is kicking the can down the road.

Most people assume that net zero means we can carry on with business as usual on the basis that someone in the future will take the CO2 we release today out of the atmosphere tomorrow.  It is politically attractive – we don’t have to change our cherished consumer society, we can just make rosy statements about technological advance and, as usual, leave it to our children to sort out our problems.

Net zero relies on huge, planetary scale negative-emissions technology. CO2 removal, even if the technologies exist, will require an industry about the size of our current oil and gas industry,  requiring vast amounts of energy and investment, but effectively not producing any economic output.  There are no industrial facilities today even approaching the size needed for this to be a realistic proposition.

Selling carbon offsets is being promoted by the travel industry as a way of promoting guilt-free travel

This hope for future CO2 removal is reflected in national policy.  In the UK we emit roughly 31 million tonnes of CO2 a year. Future plans assume that this will continue into the late 21st century, and that we will achieve net zero through emission-removal technologies. We allow ourselves very weak near-term policies to support business as usual, against assumption of huge scaling-up of removal technologies in the future.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said that keeping within 1.5 degrees increase is only just possible with serious, immediate, and deep cuts to our emissions today. Yet even its scenarios tend to rely on a level of CO2 removal.

The use of nature-based solutions to address climate change is very welcome but again, the scale of our emissions simply cannot be addressed by assuming that nature will absorb our surplus.

Furthermore, we have left addressing climate change so late that reaching net zero is now not enough. Our atmospheric CO2 is far too high (the safe limit is thought to be 350ppm, we are now at 415ppm). More than just not emitting CO2, we must now remove it from the atmosphere.  We need to get to actual zero emissions within a very short time and then go negative, removing more carbon than we emit. This is the role of nature-based solutions. Nature can work with us if we urgently stop our use of fossil fuels and get our emissions down to as close to zero as possible.

Vague ideas about net zero sometime in the future, based on untried technologies and overly optimistic nature-based solutions seriously undermine the need for urgent action today. Relying on carbon negative technologies should be the last thing we do after we’ve removed all the emissions it is possible to remove, not the first thing we do to protect business as usual.

Tony Whitbread is President of the Sussex Wildlife Trust, and is a founding member of the SECA Steering Group.  He is writing here in his personal capacity.

More information

For a good critique of net zero see this video by international climate scientist Kevin Anderson and this opinion piece from George Monbiot on carbon offsetting.

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