The concept of “net zero” has become a major mechanism for industries and politicians who are unwilling to move past the fossil fuel economy to pretend that somehow that will not be necessary, since some future technology or tree planting will cancel out the emissions.
I’ve written before about how you would need a carbon capture industry far greater than today’s oil industry to bury our current emissions, and this CO2 burial industry would not produce anything of value to sell, meaning it would need to be paid for in a way not envisioned in any of the net zero promises I have seen. Tree planting is perhaps even more hopeless, since temporary sequestration of CO2 in biomass is not comparable to the permanent addition of CO2 to the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels. When climate plans rely heavily on tree planting it’s a strong indication that they are intended for public relations purposes and do not have a sound scientific basis.
“Net zero” is also profoundly ambiguous about what kind of action needs to take place, since it suggests that we *can* persist indefinitely with fossil fuel use, just so long as some other people undertake compensatory activities to cancel it out. That’s not the right message or set of incentives to present to individuals and firms when we desperately need them to stop investing in long-lived fossil fuel infrastructure.
Being clear that our intent is to abolish fossil fuels accomplishes several useful things. It reinforces how fossil fuel firms and infrastructure are poor long-term investments, making it all the clearer that Canada should not be allowing new bitumen pipelines or LNG facilities. It stresses how stabilizing the climate can only be achieved through the effective abandonment of fossil fuels, and in so doing elevates the importance of building up all other forms of energy.
Maintaining a climate comparable to what humanity has experienced for its entire history requires a true zero, the effective abandonment of fossil fuels as sources of energy. Talking about “net zero” is chiefly emerging as a way to sound visionary and ambitious, while actually retreating into the hope that somehow new developments will eliminate the need for a difficult choice. We shouldn’t trust business or political leaders who talk that way.