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5 reasons why "net zero" won't cut it

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By Rob Cobbold

· 4 min read

Carbon neutrality and the equivalent notion of “net zero” has garnered a huge amount of attention in recent years with a flurry of net zero targets set by major corporations around the world from Apple to Amazon to BP. But what exactly does it mean to be “carbon neutral” and could it hold the key to addressing the climate crisis?

"Carbon neutral" is a term used to describe a state in which an entity, such as a company, organization, event, or even an individual, has balanced its carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions with an equivalent amount of carbon removal or offsetting activities, resulting in a net-zero carbon footprint. In other words, the total amount of CO2 emissions released into the atmosphere is offset by the removal or reduction of an equal amount of CO2 from the atmosphere.

Removing carbon from the atmosphere normally comes in the form of buying carbon offsets issued on the basis of regenerating degraded habitats e.g. planting trees or deforestation avoidance e.g. protecting forests at risk of being cut down. Other types of credits include direct air capture (DAC) or cookstove projects where people in developing countries are provided with more fuel-efficient cookstoves, thereby reducing emissions.

Carbon neutrality and net zero is appealing in its simplicity. It conjures a sense of fairness; balancing the scales. Who can argue with a company whose impact on climate change has literally been canceled out?

However, its very simplicity is also its undoing. The natural world is not straight lines and balanced scales. The natural world, and our effect upon it, are nonlinear feedback loops and a web of complexity. Coming at it in 2D, however well-intentioned, is not going to get us to where we want to be.
Here are five reasons why efforts to be “carbon neutral” can be counter-productive:

1) Carbon is not the only metric that matters - nature-based solutions offer immense value in terms of biodiversity and community but are often grossly undervalued because of an obsessive focus on carbon alone.

2) The drive to measure emissions precisely so that companies can claim neutrality has spawned a whole industry of bean counters and has led to the absurd situation where large companies often spend far more on measuring their emissions than actually doing anything about them.

3) This same need for precision and certainty has led to the perverse situation where technology-based reductions, e.g. DAC, (where it's relatively precise and objective) are valued between $600-$1000 per metric tonne, while carbon stored in the primary rainforest (where it's more ambiguous/harder to prove) is valued at around $2.5 per tonne. From an environmental standpoint, this is clearly absurd: primary rainforest is infinitely more valuable in terms of biodiversity and the human communities it supports, not to mention its capacity to regenerate and evolve.

4) It falsely conveys the impression that climate impact is a linear bar that goes left or right like the energy bar in a 90s arcade game. In reality, climate impact (both negative and positive) is a complex web of systems with feedback loops, time delays, nonlinear dynamics and so on and so forth, right the way down to the opinions you broadcast.

5) There are so many "what ifs", particularly when it comes to additionality and deforestation avoidance that if we are to approximate the true value of natural assets then we have to abandon the pretense of 100% objectivity (which carbon neutrality demands) and embrace ambiguity and uncertainty. Can we guarantee that the square of rainforest you've paid to protect doesn't burn in a forest fire? No. Does that mean there's no point paying to reduce that risk to a minimum while setting aside resources to regenerate it in that eventuality? Of course not.

All that said, it would be naive and impractical to entirely disregard a concept that has done more to galvanize corporate action on climate than just about any other. It is worth remembering where we are compared to where we were - as little as 10 years ago, corporate climate action was confined to token gestures and empty words. Now most large companies in the world have a net zero target.

Because of its ability to capture the imagination and focus minds, net zero still has a role to play and can be a valuable way to channel private capital towards the protection of the world’s most vulnerable and biodiverse ecosystems. But we must do so while keeping in mind that “net zero” is not all there is to address the climate and biodiversity crisis and never will be.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Rob Cobbold is the CEO of Native, helping companies invest in nature one Square at a time. Rob is an entrepreneur, public speaker and philosopher who has delivered transformative educational experiences to over 30,000 people worldwide.

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