Climate advocates should call for fossil fuel abolition, not “net zero”

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.

20 thoughts on “Climate advocates should call for fossil fuel abolition, not “net zero””

  1. Net-zero pledges are their own genre of crap. Climate justice groups—particularly those from climate-vulnerable countries—have consistently raised concerns about the faulty accounting embedded in such promises, which place enormous faith in unproven technologies to counterbalance continually rising emissions. Just this week, Friends of the Earth International released a report supported by the Third World Network, the Indigenous Environmental Network, and La Via Campesina (among many other groups) once again taking aim at the creative math that can obscure a nation’s or company’s intent to keep emitting at unsustainable levels.

    “‘Net zero’ is a smokescreen, a conveniently invented concept that is both dangerous and problematic because of how effectively it hides inaction,” the groups wrote. “We have to unpack ‘net zero’ strategies and pledges to see which are real and which are fake.” Instead of pledges that rely inordinately on technological fixes we don’t yet have, they call instead for commitments to “real zero,” including “a coordinated phase-out of fossil fuel production and consumption,” along with “binding rules on big business, allowing us to rein back the power of transnational corporations (TNCs) and provide victims with access to justice, compensation and restoring of their livelihoods wherever crimes occur.” Carbon markets, they argue—baked into Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, thanks in part to Shell—won’t cut it: They mainly create new profit-making opportunities in the form of carbon-offset markets that do more harm than good. These often rely on land grabs that threaten biodiversity, all with dubious climate benefits

  2. The ‘Big Con’ Revealed: Report Details Fossil Fuel Industry’s Deceptive ‘Net Zero’ Strategy

    “Big polluters and rich governments should not only reduce emissions to Real Zero, they must pay reparations for the huge climate debt owed to the Global South.”

    The IEA’s New Net Zero ‘Roadmap’ is Dangerously Reliant on Destructive Bioenergy

    The influential agency is also wildly overestimating the amount of bioenergy currently in production, argues Biofuelwatch’s Almuth Ernsting.

  3. All governments do this, but Boris Johnson’s has perfected the art. It operates on the principle of commitment inflation: as the action winds down, the pledges ramp up. Never mind that it won’t meet the targets set by the fourth and fifth carbon budgets: it now has a thrilling new target for the sixth one. Never mind that it can’t meet its old commitment, of an 80% cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Instead, it has promised us “net zero” by the same date. Yes, we need more ambition, yes, it is following official advice, but higher targets appear to be a substitute for action.

  4. ‘Abolish these companies, get rid of them’: what would it take to break up big oil?

    Ayisha Siddiqa doesn’t want fossil fuel companies to determine her future anymore. The industry has promoted climate denial for longer than the 22-year-old has been alive. Rather than watch companies pad their profits as the world burns, Siddiqa has a radical solution in mind.

    “Abolish these oil companies, finish them, get rid of them, no more,” she said.

    Siddiqa’s words echo a rallying cry for climate and environmental advocates who see limited options in finding justice for the low-income and communities of color whose lives the industry have ravaged – and will continue to as the climate crisis unfolds.

    Siddiqa is the founder of Polluters Out, a youth-led coalition dedicated to removing the oil and gas industry’s influence from international climate negotiations. She created the group in response to the failed COP25 climate talks in 2019, which made little progress toward curbing carbon emissions. In her mind, the major petroleum giants don’t deserve to be involved in the clean energy revolution.

  5. Unless we leave fossil fuels in the ground, any commitment to stop climate breakdown is merely gestural. The atmosphere does not respond to gestures. It is unmoved by promises, unimpressed by words. It has no factions that can be set against each other, no voters who can be fobbed off and distracted.

    This is one of the reasons why governments hate and shun what climate science tells them. If they took it seriously, they would tailor policy to scientific advice. But such constraints on political choice are perceived as intolerable, not only by politicians, but by the philosophy on which our democracies are founded.

  6. “But the seductiveness of net-zero pledges is that leaders find it relatively easy to commit to long-term targets, the achievement of which will occur—or not—long after they have left office. What is urgently needed will require more political courage: countries must enact new laws and regulations to bend the emission curve downward during the terms of leaders who are currently in office. But too many major emitting countries are currently failing to build the political will and capacity to take that step.”

  7. Carbon offsets to help coal, gas survive

    Federal Energy Minister Angus Taylor has moved to placate jittery Nationals MPs by saying “net zero doesn’t mean zero emissions” or the end of the coal and gas industry.

    As the Morrison government attempts to lock in its updated climate and energy policy ahead of the crucial COP26 climate summit next month, Mr Taylor will effectively pour cold water on the Business Council of Australia’s call for the Morrison government to tighten up its so-called safeguard mechanism to force big polluters to change behaviour – a move Mr Taylor likened to a “carbon tax” – in a speech to The Australian Financial Review Energy and Climate Summit on Monday.

  8. IEA report warns oil and gas companies against banking on carbon capture

    The report states that limiting global temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius, the target the international community committed to with the Paris Agreement, would require an “inconceivable” 32 billion tonnes of emissions to be sequestered by carbon capture by 2050.

    “The amount of electricity needed to power these technologies would be greater than the entire world’s electricity demand today,” the report said, adding that amount of carbon capture would also require an increase in global spending on the technology from $4 billion last year to $3.5 trillion by 2050.

  9. A new paper published in the journal Energy Research and Social Science has found the Pathways Alliance of oilsands companies engaged in multiple instances of “greenwashing” in their promotional efforts, obscuring the true nature of the oil and gas sector’s carbon pollution and the true costs required to eliminate it.

    “”Their messaging omits important information, uses misleading framing and comparisons, and fails to meet standards expected of a credible net-zero plan,” the study said.

    “It is possible that their net zero plan is a strategy for allowing increased emissions in the near term,” it added.

  10. Greenwashing, net-zero, and the oil sands in Canada: The case of Pathways Alliance

    Net-zero plans, or the target of negating an organization’s carbon emissions by 2050, have proliferated among large oil and gas companies. These plans have led to misleading and unverifiable claims to climate protection and have spurred concerns by researchers about greenwashing. This article examines net zero greenwashing using the case of Pathways Alliance, a coalition of six companies representing 95 % of oil sands production in Canada, one of the world’s largest oil reserves.

    Drawing on a corpus of documents (n = 183) spanning a two-year period, including materials from the coalition’s advertising and public relations campaign, we evaluate Pathways Alliance’s public communication for indicators of net-zero greenwashing. We identify instances of selective disclosure and omission, misalignment of claim and action, displacement of responsibility, non-credible claims, specious comparisons, nonstandard accounting, and inadequate reporting. There is also evidence that their publicity campaign extends beyond the materials usually collected and assessed for greenwashing by researchers. The article calls for further research into net zero communication and an expanded conception of greenwashing able to account for the role of digital platforms, public relations, and sector-wide alliances in strategically coordinated climate communication.

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