Is Net-Zero a Fantasy?

Some scientists are saying net-zero is a problematic excuse for inaction.

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

Ashley Cooper / Getty Images

As net-zero pledges from countries, cities and companies have proliferated, it has become increasingly important to scrutinize the details. However, according to three scientists who have spent decades in the climate space, we may also want to scrutinize the dangers of the term itself. 

In a fascinating and persuasive piece for The Conversation, James Dyke, Robert Watson, and Wolfgang Knorr argue the very idea of net-zero has become a problematic excuse for inaction.

They 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. It has also hastened the destruction of the natural world by increasing deforestation today, and greatly increases the risk of further devastation in the future."

What is Net-Zero?

Net-zero is a scenario in which human-generated 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.

Tracing the roots of the concept back to the birth of climate Integrated Assessment Models in the '90s, the authors say climate conversations were increasingly driven by theoretical, market-centric notions of emissions reduction pathways—pathways that ignored the complexities of human behavior, economics, politics, or society at large. 

Whether it was the United States wanting to get credit for its forest management during Kyoto Protocol negotiations—largely so it could continue burning coal, oil, and gas—or the birth of "clean coal" and "carbon capture and storage," they identify how time-and-again model-driven visions for progress would assume that decarbonization was impossible. Instead, scientists and negotiators alike would propose "solutions" that could get us where we needed to go, without stopping to analyze whether these solutions were technically or economically feasible, or socially desirable either. 

Their arguments are likely not new to folks who have followed this space for a while. Still, it’s interesting to see some prominent climate scientists reflect on the ways climate science has failed to communicate what society needs to get done: 

In private, scientists express significant skepticism about the Paris Agreement, BECCS, offsetting, geoengineering, and net-zero. Apart from some notable exceptions, in public, we quietly go about our work, apply for funding, publish papers and teach. The path to disastrous climate change is paved with feasibility studies and impact assessments.
Rather than acknowledge the seriousness of our situation, we instead continue to participate in the fantasy of net-zero. What will we do when reality bites? What will we say to our friends and loved ones about our failure to speak out now?

It’s almost impossible to argue with the idea that the world’s leaders have acted far too slowly, and that there is still both a failure to recognize the urgency of the crisis, as well as continued reliance on magical thinking and technological fixes. Whether that’s the direct fault of the general concept of net-zero, however, is something I am not so sure about.

And this is where it may be helpful to distinguish between national and international policy, and the use of net-zero by businesses, institutions, or even individuals who have no way to fully decarbonize by themselves. After all, there are many different ways to do net-zero. For some—like Shell Oil, for example—they see a "net-zero" future that involves still digging up oil and gas and just planting some trees instead. For others, net-zero means setting specific and aggressive near, and medium-term targets, focusing on decarbonization first—and only applying offsets or negative emissions solutions as a tactic of last resort. 

Business Green editor James Murray published an interesting defense of net-zero, in which he shared a large number of the authors’ concerns about a lack of urgency, a lack of transparency, and a lack of accountability. Murray simultaneously argued that net-zero itself was not the problem. (To be fair, Business Green has pushed the concept of net-zero hard.)
Dyke, Watson, and Knorr themselves are very clear that some form of carbon sequestration, capture and/or removal will almost certainly be necessary to mitigate those industries and emissions sources that take too long to decarbonize. Their problem, then, is not with the concept, or even the technologies themselves. Instead, it’s with the relative weight that we place on reduction versus removal. 

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. So net-zero or no net-zero, the questions we need to be asking our leaders is this: How much carbon can we possibly cut this year? And then how do we do even more moving forward?