Net-Zero Is a Dangerous Distraction

It's time to forget the net and go straight for zero emissions.

After the flood in Germany
After the flood in Bad Münstereifel, Germany.

Adam Berry Getty Images

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."

Paulsen is expressing a concern we have noted on Treehugger before. My colleague Sami Grover on the corporate and national scale with posts titled "Is Net-Zero a Fantasy?" or when he asks "What Does Net-Zero Really Mean?" in which he quotes climate scientist, Dr. Elizabeth Swain:

I have also complained that 2050 is the new never, and called net-zero pledges the new "net out of jail free" cards in "How Net-Zero Targets Disguise Climate Inaction," writing:

"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."

Coincidentally, at the time of this writing, Chevron admitted its giant carbon capture and storage facility in Australia didn't work, and is described as “a shocking failure of one of the world’s largest engineering projects."

It's time to aim for zero emissions

Elrond Burrell tweets

Screen Capture/Twitter

After Paulsen's first tweet, I tried to initiate a discussion on Twitter, suggesting we stop using net-zero and go for zero emissions—an impossible target, but at least it is real. And as architect Elrond Burrell notes, it is not just a bunch of solar panels and saying "Electrify Everything!" another impossible target. Burrell wondered: "Net-zero what? Annual energy? Annual carbon? Lifecycle energy or carbon? I very rarely use it because it is rarely meaningful."

Paulsen noted that it was 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."

We actually shouldn't be debating net-zero at all: As Alex Steffen notes, we are way past that, and all of the net-zero accounting games. It is silly to say we will plant trees when all of North America is under a pall of smoke from burning forests. It's silly to say we have the technology to suck carbon dioxide out of the air when we have seen how well carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) works.

But What About Net-Zero with Solar Power?

Rooftop solar on house

Steven Puetzer/ Getty Images

We have argued many times that rooftop solar is wonderful, but if you don't seriously reduce demand then you are again designing your system around impossible peaks, and just shifting the problem somewhere else. It doesn't place any real limits on how resilient or well-built the building is, it just does a mathematical equation that suggests that one is generating clean power on their roof to compensate for what they have to buy, net over the year. As Monte Paulsen notes,

"Net-zero energy, on a building scale, has always been a selfish target, an exercise in self-aggrandizement. If too many buildings were “net zero” it would bankrupt the power utilities, which would have to provide peak power only. It's an idea that brings no benefits, except ego, and if executed en mass would bring public harm."

Others put it more technically. Candace Pearson and Nadav Malin of BuildingGreen wrote:

"Contrary to what one might assume, the cost of the electric grid is not driven by how many kilowatt-hours are consumed over the course of the year, but mainly by the peak demand that that grid must serve. There must be enough power generators, transmission lines, and substations to deliver whatever power is needed on the hottest or coldest (depending on the climate) day of the year. More infrastructure must be added if that peak goes up."
get rid of gas says Monte

Monte Paulsen via Twitter

So forget the net, and concentrate on driving down emissions. Paulsen suggests a place to start, with operating emissions.

Bryn on emissions

Bryn Davidson via Twitter

Vancouver builder Bryn Davidson notes that we can't forget about the embodied emissions that come from actually building it in the first place. He reminds us also that small renovations in walkable communities can reduce legacy emissions (by fixing existing buildings) and transport emissions from driving. suggesting that it might be a better idea than a certain lovely building we showed previously on Treehugger.

Enterprise Centre
credit: Architype Architects/ My favourite low-carbon building

Treehugger previously discussed the work of Emily Partridge at Architype Architects in the United Kingdom, designers of what I have called one of the greenest buildings on earth, and who claims "there is absolutely no excuse for new buildings that don’t meet zero carbon standards” –and that is zero carbon without a net. She concluded in her article:

"The drastic impact of the current pandemic has not changed the fact that we are in a climate emergency. We need to be completely clear, honest, and truthful, use the knowledge and the technology we already have, and drop the greenwash."

You can't net-zero fossil fuels. If you consider embodied carbon, the upfront emissions from making things, it's pretty hard to net-zero anything, including electric cars and heat-pumped houses.

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.