How 'Net-Zero' Targets Disguise Climate Inaction

Just say no to 'net-out-of-jail-free cards.'

Net zero announcements
Net-zero announcements make headlines.


Japan is doing it. China is doing it. Shell Oil is even doing it. They are all promising to be carbon neutral or net-zero by 2050 (China says 2060, and promises "Peak Carbon" by 2030). But what are they actually promising and what are they actually going to do? According to a new briefing from six climate justice organizations, cleverly titled "NOT ZERO: How "net zero' targets disguise climate inaction," the answer is not much.

Not Zero cover

Corporate Accountability et al.

The report find that far from signifying climate ambition, the phrase “net-zero” is being used by a majority of polluting governments and corporations to evade responsibility, shift burdens, disguise climate inaction, and in some cases even to scale up fossil fuel extraction, burning and emissions. 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.
Organizations behind report

Corporate Accountability et al.

Rachel Rose Jackson, director of climate research and policy for Corporate Accountability, one of the six climate organizations (shown above) involved in the briefing, tells Treehugger that her group has been "challenging trans-national corporations for forty years."

"Corporate Accountability has campaigned heavily in international policy-making spaces to kick big polluters out because big companies use their access to and influence in those spaces to undermine action, to advance false solutions, and now, here we are, decades later, facing environmental and social collapse."

Collectively they have decades of experience in battles with big polluters. She said that northern wealthy countries in particular are proposing planting schemes in the south that are displacing local residents and using local resources; instead, we need global climate justice and equity. "We have to stop polluting, and we have to stop extracting."

They claim that net-zero is "a facade to evade responsibility," noting (as we have in discussions about net-zero for buildings) that “Net zero emissions” does not mean “zero emissions,” and should not be "accepted at face value." That there is not enough land on the planet to do this with tree plantations, that planting trees in the south to offset emissions in the north is a form of "carbon colonialism" and that 2050 or 2060 is way too late. "Instead of relying on future technologies and harmful land grabs, we need climate plans that radically reduce emissions to Real Zero."

As the United Nations body, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), has noted, we have only until about 2030 to reduce our emissions almost by half if we are to have a chance of keeping the temperature rise to less than 1.5 C. Yet countries like Canada are approving oil pipelines as long as they promise to be carbon neutral by 2050. What does that even mean? We have complained about the "fuzzy math" about net-zero buildings for years, and it appears that the same is true for countries.

not all net zeros are equal

Corporate Accountability et al.

They do not pull any punches in the Not Zero briefing, noting that it is a lot easier to come up with zero when you are starting with zero or ten tons than it is when you are trying to bury a hundred of them.

Net Out of Jail Free

"Our ability to permanently remove CO2 from the atmosphere is limited. It is dangerous to assume that we can continue releasing large amounts of GHGs into the atmosphere, and that the Earth will have enough technological or ecological capacity to absorb all of the GHGs released under all countries’ and corporations’ 'net zero' plans. Instead of hoping to remove or 'net out' GHGs, climate targets must focus on bringing the amount of GHGs produced as close to zero as possible, and minimising the total amount of GHGs added to the atmosphere."

The briefing cleverly calls this all a "net-out-of-jail-free card" that is used to avoid or delay reducing emissions altogether.

Many countries are also talking about massive Direct Air Capture schemes to pull CO2 out of the atmosphere or planting trees for burning and then carbon capture, none of which have been demonstrated at any kind of scale. Instead, the briefing calls for immediate action, "real solutions with real targets" noting that these exist now. Some examples that do not involve nets:

  • Transitioning to 100% renewable energy systems that are democratically controlled, creating new jobs, and protecting workers.
  • Shifting from industrial agriculture to agroecological practices, ending perverse subsidies and the use of artificial fertilizers.
  • Investing in infrastructure for electric mass public transport that is free or heavily subsidized, along with making cities less reliant on cars and more bike-friendly.
  • Publicly investing in retrofitting old, inefficient buildings and ensuring efficient heating and cooling systems in all new buildings and houses, through public policies that make them affordable for all.

Those are just a few of the two pages of recommendations covering behavior, renewable energy, fossil fuels, education, food, housing, and transport. (Download them all here.) It is a lot harder than promising net-zero 30 years from now, but the only way we are going to really solve this problem is to drastically reduce our emissions, and do it without a net.

"Simply announcing a 'net zero by 2050' goal is not enough to show a serious plan for climate action. Rather, particularly when made by corporations and global North countries, it is a public proclamation of the unethical, irresponsible failure to act. If we are to have a chance of avoiding runaway climate breakdown we need targets that require real action, and that employ real solutions to get us to real zero – fairly – and fast."

We at Treehugger have never had much time for net-zero buildings when we know how to build structures that use almost no energy and emit almost no carbon at all without a net. Really, it is the same with countries; no more "net-out-of-jail-free cards."