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The ‘net-zero’ greenwash

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By Ashish Kothari

· 10 min read

Every once in a while, a seductive term comes along to save the fortress of rulers from being taken down by disgruntled ‘subjects’. We’ve had concepts like ‘inclusive’, ‘sustainable’, and ‘participatory’, each hiding what is otherwise business as usual. The latest in this lineage is ‘net-zero’.

With the climate crisis and biodiversity loss so clearly visible that they are becoming impossible to ignore or deny (Trumpism notwithstanding), there is a scramble for convenient solutions, especially in governments and corporations. Pathways that do not disturb the status quo are being sought and tread, strategies that do not challenge the current power dynamics in which nation-state governments and mega-corporations (including banks) control national and global economy, and yet appear to give them a nice green image. Net-zero has emerged as one of the favourites. It is likely to be pushed strongly in the upcoming Climate Conference of Parties (COP26) and is already part of the discussions around the Post-2020 Biodiversity Framework that is being negotiated under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).

In the case of climate, net-zero implies that if there is a certain amount of climate-changing emissions in one place, it can be ‘offset’ elsewhere in a number of ways, such as capturing the same amount in trees or the oceans. This does not necessarily entail reducing the emissions in the first place. For biodiversity, the equivalent is ‘no-net-loss’, which means that the loss of an ecosystem or species somewhere is compensated by regenerating or protecting anew a similar ecosystem or that species somewhere else.

Suddenly, everyone is announcing net-zero or no-net-loss targets. G7 countries recently announced a collective target of reaching net-zero climate damaging emissions by 2050. In 2019, Amazon initiated the Climate Pledge, committing to become net-zero by 2040 – I am referring here to the company, not the forest, which, given deforestation rates, will probably be an absolute zero by end of century. A number of prominent academic institutions and civil society groups are also involved, such as Princeton and Stanford Universities in USA.

The net-zero approach, however, contains a series of fundamental, dangerous flaws.

Firstly, a mindset that equates pollution emitted or forest cut in one place to pollution absorbed or afforestation done elsewhere, is ecologically and socially ignorant (or will-fully negligent). This comes from a flawed view that the climate crisis is only about carbon and that a forest is only a collection of trees, a grassland a collection of grass, a wetland a body of water with fish in it. The emissions of a thermal power station are not only carbon dioxide, but other gases and liquid effluents, with their own hazards to human and environment health. How can capturing an equivalent amount of carbon somewhere else, possibly compensate for the other emissions (or for the impacts of associated activities such as coal mining, fracking, pipelines, transmission lines)? Similarly, in the case of biodiversity, a rainforest is a complex of thousands of species and varieties (many of which we may not even have yet identified or described), and there is no human mechanism that can it possibly be replicated elsewhere, certainly not in any short time-span. The same for complex grasslands, wetlands, coastal and marine areas, and other natural ecosystems.

A precursor to this kind of approach has been used to justify the loss of ecosystems for so-called ‘development’ projects. For instance, in India, if a dam or mine or industry is given 100 hectares of forest land to clear and use, it has to do ‘compensatory afforestation’ of 200 hectares of non-forest land. This is purely a numbers game, with absolutely no consideration for the complexity, quality, and multiple values of the forest that will be cleared. The most ridiculous and ecologically bankrupt example of this is a recent decision to do compensatory afforestation for 20,000 hectares of rainforests being diverted in Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Bay of Bengal – guess where? In central India, an area where none of the species typical of the islands can possibly be grown! I mean, would it be tolerated if one were to say, its ok to destroy the economy of one country, we’ll just make sure the economy of another country is upgraded?

Second, as a recent civil society report exposing the net-zero scam points out, many of the proposals for achieving this target are based on unrealistic projections of land available, or technologies that are not yet viable. According to some calculations, there may simply not be enough ‘natural sinks’ (forests, seas, grasslands) to absorb existing and future emissions, and these ecosystems cannot be force-fed to absorb more or faster. Or if an attempt is made to do this it could create other ecological disasters. For instance, one of the ‘geoengineering’ (technological engineering at a global scale) solutions that has been proposed for many years is ‘fertilising’ the oceans with iron to increase planktons that would absorb carbon. Many scientists warn that this could set off unpredictable and potentially devastating chain effects on marine life, apart from ethically troubling considerations regarding possible impacts on people across the planet.

Third, the common experience with all such approaches is that the targets are hardly ever met. Grand promises are made to justify continued or new emissions, or the clearing of an ecosystem, but subsequently it is found that as much land as is required, or the technologies needed, are simply not available. Inefficiency, corruption, and other all-too-frequent bugbears of the governmental or corporate system play their own part in this failure of implementation. In India, the amount of land required for compensatory afforestation has consistently lagged behind the amount of forest land diverted for non-forest use, and civil society reports indicate that substantial achievements of afforestation are more on paper than on the ground.

Fourth, net-zero approaches do not take into consideration social, economic, and cultural impacts, both of the activities that are causing emissions or biodiversity loss as also of the compensatory activities. I recall that four decades back when we were campaigning against thermal power stations in Delhi, we found that one of them was not only emitting huge amounts of pollution from its chimneys but also spreading dangerous coal dust into neighbouring rural areas with serious consequences for farming and the health of its residents. How will absorbing carbon somewhere else possibly reduce this ‘collateral damage’? If a forest or wetland on which a local community is dependent is cleared for a mining project, how can afforestation or regeneration of a wetlands elsewhere possibly compensate its loss of livelihoods and cultural-spiritual connections?

And then where compensatory activities are taken up, it is often on lands which other farming, fishing, pastoral, crafts and other nature-dependent communities survive on, by displacing or dispossessing them. India’s compensatory afforestation scheme, mentioned above, has done this time and again. Even when the compensation is in the form of freshly protecting, say, one square kilometre of rainforest in one place for a square kilometre deforested somewhere else, it could have negative consequences for the communities living inside or dependent on that forest. This has been a common criticism of the 15-year old climate mitigation approach called REDD+ (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation).

According to Shell corporation, one of the world’s biggest climate polluters, for the world to reach net-zero about 700 million hectares of land (about the size of Brazil) will have to be reforested; chances are these will be lands on which communities are dependent for their livelihoods. With no curbs on overall and luxury energy demand, even renewable energy sources will be unsustainable, and have their own horrific impacts on ecosystems, wildlife and local communities. Amazon (the company) has in 2020 become the world’s biggest consumer of renewable energy – sounds good, but a closer look at how and where this enormous energy is produced and what impacts it has is likely to reveal an uglier picture.

Fifth, as the above mentioned civil society report points out, “the vast majority of these (climate-related) plans are centred on a “net zero” by 2050 timeline with little action taken to reduce emissions at source for decades—far too long a timeline for a credible emissions reduction plan that ensures we keep global temperature rise to below 1.5 degrees Celsius. Many of these plans lack real benchmarks between now and 2050, which allows business as usual for decades before any action is required, and ignore basic principles of global equity, which demand that wealthier entities act fastest to reduce emissions and provide support for others to follow.”

There is widespread scientific opinion that the only thing that will work is drastic decrease in emissions by 2030. But it does not appear that the biggest polluting countries and companies are committing to anything close to this. According to Carbon Brief, a website that has presented clear data and analysis on climate for some years, Shell corporation’s latest vision of net-zero called ‘Sky 1.5’, envisages continued use of oil, gas, and coal until the end of the century. India, while projecting itself as a global climate leader by committing to 450 GW of renewable energy by 2030 (on which it is well behind schedule), also continues to expand its fossil fuel extraction and production. In 2020, during the COVID lockdown, it auctioned 60 new coal mining blocks.

As climate activist Greta Thunberg said in her characteristically forthright address to the Austrian World Summit on 2nd July:

"…we welcome all efforts to safeguard future and present living conditions, and these distant net-zero emissions targets would be a great start if they weren’t full of gaps and loopholes leaving out emissions from imported goods, international aviation and shipping, as well as burning of biomass using baseline manipulation, excluding most feedback loops and tipping points, ignoring the crucial aspect of equity and historic emissions, as well as making these targets completely relying on fantasy scale, currently barely existing negative emissions technologies."

Net-zero has become a convenient way of avoiding meaningful action on climate or biodiversity.

At the heart of this greenwash is an older phenomenon, that of pushing technological solutions to social, economic, political problems. With capitalist profits driving corporations, short-term political power fuelling the decisions of governments, an addiction to economic growth-based development remains at the base of national and international decisions. Anyone who questions this, even when backed by solid evidence of such approaches leading us to ecological and social catastrophe, is ignored; or if they happen to be defenders of their own lands and ecosystems, imprisoned, beaten up, even killed.

It is not as if alternatives do not exist. They do, and are proven as viable in initiatives around the world. Decentralised renewable energy such as solar is now financially affordable (in many situations cheaper than fossil fuels). It needs to be accompanied with limits on luxury demand and the redistribution of existing energy to those who still don’t have enough. These are political issues, and require cultural change as well to give a sense of the injustice and unsustainability of demanding more and more energy (even if its ‘renewable’).

Similarly, there are alternatives in all the sectors that are currently leading to climate change and biodiversity loss: transportation, construction, infrastructure, industrial production, home appliances, etc. A rapid move away from privatised motor vehicles to public transportation, cycling and walking, and ecologically sensitive building are arenas where massive energy savings can take place, with concomitant reduction in emissions and other ecological impacts. A shift away from chemical-based to organic, biologically diverse agriculture would have similar benefits. In the case of biodiversity, community-led approaches such as territories of life are proven time and again to be effective, and would help in averting biodiversity loss rather than have to go for offsets that are often ineffective, usually very expensive, and mostly resulting in the displacement or dispossession of communities.

Net-zero and no-net-loss are ethically bankrupt, dangerous diversions in which the only beneficiaries are mega-corporations and governments. These worthies simply don’t want to take the meaningful actions that would tackle the climate crisis and biodiversity loss. For them, net-zero like approaches have become convenient fig-leaves to hide criminal negligence and inaction.

This article first appeared on Wall Street International. 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.

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About the author

Ashish Kothari is a globally recognized environmentalist who has spent over 40 years of his career tackling key environmental and climate change-related issues. Ashish is the Founder of Kalpavriksh, a non-profit organization working on environmental and social issues at local, national and global levels. He served as a member of the Steering Committees of the World Commission on Protected Areas (WCPA), and a coordinator for 'India’s National Biodiversity Strategy & Action Plan'. Ashish has authored and edited 30+ books and 300+ articles.

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