2021 in Review: The Year in Net-Zero

So many pledges to go net-zero. But what do they really mean? Here's a look at our coverage.

Row of wind turbines in front of sunrise in field landscape, Rilland, Zeeland, the Netherlands
Mischa Keijser / Getty Images

In the buildup to the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland, the pledges from countries and companies to go net-zero by 2050 came thick and fast. Everybody was doing it. But what do they mean? Is it for real?

What is Net-Zero?

Net-zero is a scenario in which human-caused greenhouse gas emissions are reduced as much as possible, with those that remain being balanced out by the removal of greenhouse gas emissions from the atmosphere.

Here at Treehugger, we have our standard definition, but it has a big problem in the second half—the part about being balanced by the removal of greenhouse gas emissions from the atmosphere. We published a surprising number of stories about the subject this year, usually illustrated with pretty wind turbines because net-zero is nebulous and hard to picture.

As Net-Zero Pledges Proliferate, New Report Scrutinizes Details

UK Pushes Wind Energy In Pursuit Of 'Net Zero' Emissions
Dan Kitwood / Getty Images

Treehugger writer Sami Grover notes how quickly net-zero has spread, writing long before COP26:

  • 61% of countries are now covered by some form of net-zero commitment
  • 9% of states and regions in the largest emitting countries and 13% of cities over 500,000 in population have now also committed to net-zero
  • At least 21% of the world’s largest companies have also made a pledge to meet net-zero

But the devil is in the details. The real meat (or plant-based protein) of the report doesn’t really lie in how many entities have committed to net-zero. Instead, the authors also explore a set of "robustness criteria" that folks need to be looking out for as these pledges become more commonplace. These include coverage, timing, status, offsetting, and governance. It's complicated.

Is Net-Zero a Fantasy?

The Clyde Wind Farm in the Southern Uplands of Scotland near Biggar

Ashley Cooper / Getty Images

Grover notes net-zero is a dangerous term, quoting three scientists who write: "We have arrived at the painful realization that the idea of net-zero has licensed a recklessly cavalier 'burn now, pay later' approach which has seen carbon emissions continue to soar."

Grover traces its roots back to the '90s, when nations that wanted to keep burning fossil fuels invented the ideas of  "clean coal" and "carbon capture and storage" without stopping to analyze whether these solutions were technically or economically feasible, or socially desirable either. But as Grover concludes: "A heart bypass is an excellent innovation of modern medicine. We probably shouldn’t use it as an excuse to avoid looking after our health."

2030 Is Out. How About 2050—Is 2050 Good For You?

The other side of the net-zero by 2050 pledges is the 2050 deadline. Cartoonist Bob Mankoff's most famous work for the New Yorker was the 1993 cartoon of a guy making a lunch appointment, concluding "No, Thursday's out. How about never – Is never good for you?" Looking at some of the corporate pledges on climate change, it is beginning to look like 2050 is the new never, basically a way to avoid doing anything now.

At the time of writing, I had not seen the hilarious article from an Australian magazine that notes how "a Sydney man has set an ambitious target to phase out his alcohol consumption within the next 29 years, as part of an impressive plan to improve his health." But we mustn't rush it: “It’s not realistic to transition to zero alcohol overnight. This requires a steady, phased approach where nothing changes for at least two decades.” 

Multinational Insurer Aims for Net-Zero, But What Does Net-Zero Really Mean?

Grover looks at the pledges from one insurance company and writes:

If engaged in genuine good faith, the concept of net-zero offers the potential for business leaders to first cut their own emissions as much as they can, and then to think more broadly about the positive impact they might have. The trouble is, however, that as soon as we open these theoretical floodgates, it inevitably empowers some highly creative accounting. (Remember Shell Oil’s plan to reach net-zero, without stopping production of oil and gas?)
Ultimately, those of us who care about climate are going to have to do much better than net-zero. And we’ll have to keep an eye on whether the term itself is helping us, or hindering us, in that pursuit. 

Net-Zero Is a Dangerous Distraction

After a particularly shocking video of a dumpster being flushed down a street in Germany, building science expert Monte Paulsen tweeted: "We need to retrofit about six billion buildings in our lifetimes. Our buildings must adapt for the coming climate, including floods and heatwaves. At the same time, our buildings must eliminate emissions. (Zero emissions, no net b*****t.) We need to begin now."

It was a time of frustration and pain, between the floods and the forest fires. I quoted an earlier post where I did my own definition of net-zero:

"The term is used to greenwash business-as-usual or even business-more-than-usual. At the core of these pledges are small and distant targets that require no action for decades, and promises of technologies that are unlikely ever to work at scale, and which are likely to cause huge harm if they come to pass."

Paulson called net-zero a setup from day one:

"Check out the various commentary on the intergovernmental 'net-zero' emissions targets. They assume GHG remediation tech that does not exist. the target is BS and the COP knows it, but it was reportedly the only way to make the numbers work & get an agreement. Can't blow a bigger hole in net-zero emissions (on a national scale) than that."

I concluded:

"The clear, honest, and truthful approach is to forget about net-zero. Just measure the carbon footprint of everything and make the choices that have the lowest upfront and operating carbon, and try and get as close to zero as possible. This is not just buildings; it is transportation, diet, consumer purchases, everything we do. And come up with a real number, because a net is full of holes."

Climeworks Turns On the World's Largest Carbon Capture and Storage Plant

Climeworks in Iceland


As noted in the Treehugger definition, achieving net-zero requires the removal of greenhouse gas emissions from the atmosphere. That's why so many people were excited by the Climeworks direct carbon capture and storage (CCS) facility in Iceland. It can remove 4,409 U.S. tons (4,000 metric tons) of CO2 per year. Everyone thinks that's great.

But always the Debbie Downer, I wrote that this was the equivalent of the emissions of 862 Ford F-150 pickup trucks, and Ford sells 2,452 of these every single day. This is not a drop in the bucket; this is more like a molecule in a bucket.

One really doesn't want to rain on the parade here, but the numbers don't work. It also plays into the hands of the net-zero crowd who think that we can solve our climate problems with techno-fixes that suck CO2 out of the air instead of cutting emissions in the first place.

Forget Net-Zero, the Target Should Be Absolute Zero

Wind turbines in the snow
Not quite Absolute Zero, but cold.

GeorgeClerk/Getty Images

With our final pretty wind farm photo, a positive approach, an alternative to net-zero that a group of researchers from the Universities of Cambridge, Oxford, Nottingham, Bath, and Imperial College London called "absolute zero." They mean literally, zero means zero.

The target of zero emissions is absolute—there are no negative emissions options or meaningful “carbon offsets.” Absolute zero means zero emissions: The basic strategy is that we have to electrify everything, and reduce demand to avoid what they call the "anticipated energy gap." That means fewer cars, better buildings, and less cement. It also calls for personal changes:

"The report notes that substantial changes in the way we live are required but we can still live well. We need to stop flying but can start taking trains. We need to buy less stuff in total and more that is made locally. We need to eat less beef and lamb, and more local food. And as we keep saying, our purchasing decisions matter: "Each positive action we take has a double effect: it reduces emissions directly and it encourages governments and businesses to be bolder in response."

I concluded that it is all doable with current technology: There is no reliance on hydrogen or machines that suck carbon out of the air; there is just a mix of sufficiency, efficiency, and decarbonization. It all sounds totally plausible. Get the report here.

In Other News: So Many Pledges

Net Zero in a Forest
Net Zero in a Forest.

iStock / Getty Images Plus

I got so tired of photos of wind turbines on net-zero posts that I found a photo of a net. I complained that there were too many terms like "carbon negative," "net positive," and "climate positive" that all meant the same as net-zero and that we needed a big meeting to figure out what to call it.

Our friends at BuildingGreen noted that when it came to buildings, net-zero is the wrong target and the Morrisons supermarket chain in the United Kingdom pledged to move its farms to net-zero by 2030. The International Energy Agency (IEA) went further than that and aims for net-zero by 2024. The World Green Building Council called for net-zero whole life commitments by 2030 that includes embodied carbon. A catering giant in the U.K. promises to go net-zero and Grover calls its plans "robust, comprehensive, and relatively transparent." I called the pledges by Canadian oil sands and pipeline companies to go net-zero ridiculous and nonsensical. The IEA said if we are actually going to get to net-zero by 2050, we have to ditch fossil fuels right now.

And it is on to 2022, where I suspect there is net-zero chance of us ditching either fossil fuels or stories about net-zero.

View Article Sources
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