Net Zero and Carbon Neutrality: Unscientific Myths for an US and THEM World
“It is unequivocal”, these are the first three words of the sixth IPCC report. The policy experts and scientist have never been clearer in describing the existential threat facing humanity. In fact, the World Meteorological Organisation recently reported that the number of climate change induced disasters has increased 500% in last 50 years, resulting in US$3.64 trillion worth of damage and the loss of 2 million lives. The unprecedented Australian and Californian bushfires, severe flooding in the US, China and extreme Indian temperatures confirms that.
Yet the proposed approach to the greatest threat of our time, namely the collective push for carbon neutrality that the International Energy Agency has termed ‘Net Zero Emissions by 2050 (NZE2050)’, is fundamentally misleading and unachievable. It is simply not a viable global solution.
But before describing the failings of NZE250, it is necessary to point out at the outset that there are some partial solutions and that it is important to focus on those that will protect the most vulnerable. It is thus critical to have a common understanding at the international level that the best way to achieve these objectives and channel money through a global effort is to invest in the rapid development of the wellbeing of the global majority over the next thirty years. And this should be done primarily by increasing their access to sustainable food, energy, and income. This means the development of economies that are predominantly run on renewable energy, regenerative agriculture, and income from jobs with a low carbon footprint.
However, this approach conflicts fundamentally with the NZE2050 “solution”, which relies on a mixture of market-based mechanisms and technology quick-fixes. NZE2050 also assumes that these methods, which have been developed for richer nations, will work for the global majority, too, both technically and politically.
Thus, the main components of NZE2050 concern conversions from fossil fuels to renewable energy, the use of carbon capture and sequestration, and carbon offsetting. While these methods appear legitimate and appealing, and although politicians from the US and Europe who support them may appear earnest, they are disingenuous for the world at large. These methods may work in part for a country or a region (e.g. the EU) but they cannot be part of a global solution and must not be mooted as one. NZE2050 advocates are in denial of the root causes of human activity that lead to climate change, which betrays a poor understanding of the economics of climate change and the socioeconomic realities for the global majority.
Why? Because reaching NZE2050 with these methods is simply not possible for either rich countries (global minority countries) or poor countries (global majority countries) within the 30-year timeframe needed to address the climate challenge. It would be far more effective in a global approach to pool global funds to build renewable energy systems in global majority countries.
For global minority countries, no amount of offsetting or activation of renewables can overcome the intensely consumptive nature of their lifestyles and economies, or fix the nature of their political systems, which are arrested to inaction by their own partisan democratic values. Thus politically correct and hopeful slogans replace the hard work of changing societies.
NZE2050 is also impossible for global majority countries because they need requisite energy to build their nations and to provide basic needs for their large unserved populations. This cannot be circumvented or ‘leapfrogged’ by the technology-based methods inherent in NZE2050 – if global minority countries cannot implement CO2-reducing tech on a large scale, how could global majority countries achieve this?
The politicians and technocrats in global minority countries know it is not possible to achieve this – flaws in the logic are not hard to identify. What is surprising is that the global scientific community has gone along with this fictitious approach too, presumably through a desire to be offering solutions and ‘action’. This belies the intellectual dishonesty of the narrative, and there are three main reasons why the NZE2050 myth has been perpetuated.
First, it legitimises economic approaches to climate change that preserve the status quo of mass consumption and high energy use, particularly in global minority countries. Why give up the privileges that come with being the richest nations in the world when it is possible to use market- and tech-based solutions to disguise business-as-usual activity and pass the buck onto future generations or global majority countries? It is for this reason that ‘developmental emissions’ of the global majority have been framed as somehow worse that the ‘luxury emissions’ of the global minority, which actually outstrip the former.
Second, the market- and techno-centric approach of NZE2050 provides an easy alternative to addressing the flaws of political systems and the contemporary social contract in global minority countries, both of which enable massive CO2 release. In particular, this concerns the sacrosanct nature of individual rights and freedoms, which must not be touched even while the world heads towards environmental collapse. As a result, there is no real political will to change the status quo, because it would challenge this fundamental pillar of liberal societies – which is the equivalent of political suicide. The inability to accept that individual lifestyles must change acts as the driver for deceptive concepts such as NZE2050.
Lastly, the NZE2050 is supported because being seen to back CO2 neutral initiatives frames leaders of minority countries – and business leaders - as climate champions at international conventions and in global media. This grants them and the multilateral organisation they lead legitimacy in a world where the public is increasingly motivated by climate-positive action. Thus, they have yet another platform to create economic, political, and industrial boundaries that have the potential to influence the world in their favour.
Beneath the utopian vision and inflated targets, NZE2050 is a misrepresentation of the nature of the challenge and the solutions needed. To determine precisely how, it is necessary to examine three main subjects: the use of market approaches, the reliance on tech, and the impacts of both on the global majority.
Market-based solutions are insufficient
The assumption underlying markets is that profit-driven companies will with the right policy incentives somehow generate effective solutions to climate change with guidance from the ‘invisible hand’, even though profits are understandably their main motivator. Historically, unregulated business activity does not take into account environmental externalities and consequently is one of the key contributions to the world reaching its current precipice. For most of the global majority, solutions can only be implemented via an active and benevolent state using a mixture of fiscal and monetary policies suited to local conditions.
As a result, even if the free market encourages business activity to become more sustainable, it does not address root problems. Corporations do not do sustainability which is a public good, they do more. More renewable energy sources or more energy efficient vehicles do not equate to a global culture of decreasing consumption and reducing externalities. Instead, markets disguise the failure to achieve actual reductions in externalities such as greenhouse gas emissions or levels of energy consumption through carbon offsetting – by planting trees, for example.
The carbon offsetting market is an example of a market-based approach that is constructed around pseudo-science but is accepted in order to preserve business as usual. Fundamentally, there is not an economic equivalent between emitted CO2 and off-setted CO2. This is because it is not possible to equate absorption of atmospheric CO2 by trees (or other sequestration organisms) with the CO2 emitted from burning fossil fuels. Trees are part of the active carbon cycle, while fossil fuel reserves are inert. Trees take decades to absorb carbon, while fossil fuel use releases it instantly. Even more glaringly: there are not enough trees in the world to offset society’s carbon, and nor will there ever be, and especially if the majority seek life styles taken for granted by the minority.
Additionally, when faced with existential risks like climate change, markets fail. They have failed to decouple CO2 emission from production and resource abuse from consumption, resulting in the ‘tragedy of the commons’ (neglect of societal wellbeing for personal gain) and ‘tragedy of the horizon’ (neglect of future risk for personal gain). This is seen in climate change, but also manifests as resource overuse, mass pollution, biodiversity loss and more.
The fact that markets break when presented with existential threats is well-known economic theory. Yet, markets remain a central pillar of NZE2050. Instead of acknowledging the inconvenient truth that consumptive lifestyles in minority countries are disastrous to continue, especially as the majority seeks to emulate them, offsetting schemes encourage business-as-usual to support said lifestyles.
Technological solutions abdicate responsibility
The second case of the NZE2050 fallacy is the obsession with silver-bullet technology. Essentially, this is the belief that technology will save the day by minimising carbon emissions or better yet, draw them down and reverse the damage we have caused. In effect, allowing minority countries to continue enjoying their CO2-heavy lifestyles. The truth is, many of these technologies do not even exist yet, despite being a core tenet of NZE2050, and if they do exist, their uptake and impact has been unimpressive.
Take carbon capture and storage (CCS). The world’s largest direct air capture plant came online in September, and it can collect about 4,000 tonnes of CO2 a year — but this is only about as much CO2 as is emitted globally every 4 seconds. Although CCS and similar technologies can be used to reduce rich-world missions during their transitions, they are far too expensive for the global majority and cannot be replicated around the world at sufficient scale and speed to achieve impact in the time frames needed.
Yet the lack of tangible tech solutions has not stopped the ever-rising push for large-scale hair-brained tech solutions, like geoengineering, despite their potential for unknown and damaging consequences. The US National Academies of Sciences, for example, has recommended allocating up to US$200 million over the next five years to explore how light-reflecting particles could be injected into the upper atmosphere to prevent further global warming. The consequences of this are of course completely unknown and could impact the whole world. The fact that this and other tech-centric solutions have received funding (even small amounts) is indicative of how desperate the need is to preserve the political status quo and consumption driven lifestyles in minority countries.
Even more commonplace tech, such as efficiency-improving mechanisms, does not always achieve desirable outcomes because of economic complications. Here’s why: tech that increases energy efficiency will result in a lower CO2 output per unit of energy. This is good – there is a need to prepare for a low emissions future through accelerate energy efficiency. But the increased efficiency will also result in a price drop per outcome with the same unit of energy. With a price drop comes increased overall consumption as market forces kick-in, because energy is readily available and cheap.
This is a paradox: the ability to use an energy resource more efficiently makes it both cheaper and more valuable at the same time, increasing its overall use and deepening our reliance on it. As with the critique of markets, this is basic economics. In fact, the phenomenon was first observed in 1865 by English economist William Stanley Jevons for coal-powered trains.
The perpetuation of the silver-bullet tech mythos helps to abdicate responsibility of climate change onto future generations because it is much easier for minority countries to hope for a panacea that preserves the status quo than resorting to state intervention in the free market or in curtailing individual freedoms.
NZE2050 is blind to the needs of majority of the world
The last aspect of the NZE2050 fallacy, which is not often discussed, is the top-down non-inclusive approach to climate solutions between global minority and majority countries. The realities of the challenges faced by nations that are still developing means that solutions devised in minority countries may not be appropriate.
Take the obsession with tech-based climate solutions. Are these solutions replicable in rural regions of global majority countries? Is the tech culturally appropriate? Is it affordable or will it result in debt? Is it even for sale?
For example, it has been estimated that solutions like biofuels and bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS – one of the more recent ‘saviour’ technologies) would demand between 0.4 and 1.2 billion hectares of land, which equates to 25% to 80% of all the land currently under cultivation. This is simply not possible when global demand for food in 2050 will be between 30-50% higher than at present – mostly from large developing countries like Nigeria, Indonesia and India. The reality is that the governments of these countries will need to focus on feeding their people first and foremost, not dedicate land to drawing down carbon. Instead, wind power systems and solar panels can be used on farming and grazing land.
Unfortunately, it is also these countries and their peoples who will be worse affected by climate change. Akinwumi Adesina, president of the African Development Bank, stated that Africa is haemorrhaging up to $15bn a year because of climate change already, and that this could rise to $50bn by 2040. He is quoted as saying: “Africa is not at net zero; Africa is at ground zero.” Clearly, the solutions presented by NZE2050 are not appropriate for many African nations.
The market-based approach of carbon offsetting is also blind to the needs of the global majority. Offsetting allows large companies in global minority countries to buy their way out of reducing emissions by investing in ‘climate-friendly’ projects and schemes. Often these take place in the developing world, like planting trees in South Africa.
Plantations like these obviously present a host of land-rights and social justice issues. But it’s also the premise of the model: that resources in global majority countries can being used to maintain the levels of privilege enjoyed by global minority countries. The entire concept is built on inequity, and it speaks to the fundamental flaw of NZE2050: at best, it ignores the needs of the global majority, but at its worst it is carbon colonialism, a subset of the broader eco-imperialism that rich countries exhibit.
For example, China is often painted as the world’s carbon enemy, as its largest CO2 emitter. Yet energy consumption (and therefore CO2 emission) is needed for economic development – and China has the world’s largest population, so it is natural to assume the country would produce the most CO2 in its efforts to lift 800 million people out of poverty. Is the expectation that global majority countries should forgo development efforts like this to keep emissions low? If so, this implies that blame for the climate crisis is homogenous across the world – but it most certainly is not, and attempts to assert the contrary instead to advance the eco-imperialism latent in NZE2050.
The global minority has released the vast majority of emissions as it progressed over the last 200 years and continues to emit many times more than the global majority. The US, for example has emitted far more CO2 than any other country: a quarter of all emissions since 1751 have occurred there. Despite China’s huge rise in emissions over the past decade, emissions per person still sit at less than half those of the US. Meanwhile the one billion people living in Sub-Saharan Africa each emit one-twentieth of the average person in the US.
By not clearly attributing responsibility of the climate crisis to the over-consumptive lifestyles in minority countries, political refuge is provided, and inaction is allowed, enabling the situation to worsen and impact the entire planet for the sake of pleasure for the minority.
What can be done instead of NZE2050?
The flaws of NZE2050 manifest as a smokescreen for business-as-usual economic practices and even act as a form of environmental imperialism, allowing the global minority to shunt their carbon debt to future generations and the global majority.
When this is recognised, it will be much more straightforward for the concerned politicians and leaders of our time to espouse that the global minority needs to reduce their fossil fuel use and change their lifestyles. This is not a problem just at the oil pump; this is the way the entire global economy works.
This means that growth in the footprint of the rich world must stop. Which implies that developed countries must scale back their levels of resource consumption and pollution output (global externalities) and in that way give room for the rest of the world to grow to deliver moderate levels of prosperity to meet basic needs.
As Akinwumi Adesina and others have pointed out – the world is not united by NZE2050. There is very clearly an ‘us’ and a ‘them’. There can be no ‘we’ when one party bears so much more responsibility for the climate challenges we are faced with.
But it is alright to admit to us and them. This is a more useful narrative than NZE2050 because it will help motivate the right kind of change. The truth is that each nation and region will have different trajectories to take in the coming decades: the developed world will struggle to placate its populations when the need for reduced resource use and lowered emissions comes to bear, while the developing world will continue to struggle to provide security and meet the basic needs for its populations as the impacts of climate change worsen.
This will be the only course of action. The 20th century was for mitigation, and we failed – in the 21st century, we have no choice left but to pursue adaptation though decreased resource use and greenhouse gas emissions in the rich world.
Energy Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Energy & Sustainability writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.
About the author
Chandran Nair is the Founder and CEO of the Global Institute For Tomorrow (GIFT). He is the author of many books and the creator of The Other Hundred, a non-profit global photo journalism initiative. He is a member of WEF’s Global Agenda Council and sits on the Executive Committee of the Club of Rome.