It’s just 3 weeks until the vital COP26 conference. Over the next few days, we will be hearing many corporations and countries speaking about their plans to reach net-zero carbon emissions. Are these promises to be trusted, or are they greenwashing, fooling the public into believing they are doing well when in fact they are still very much a part of the problem?
A while ago we had a bit of a disaster at our house. Someone (who shall remain nameless!) ran the bath and then forgot about it. No one realised until water started dripping into the hall downstairs. Unfortunately, the overflow was letting water out at a slower rate than the taps were pouring it in, so eventually, the bath overflowed.
Think of the bath as an analogy for our CO2 emissions. Before the industrial revolution, the amount of CO2 in the bath was stable at 278 parts per million. The CO2 produced by people and animals was soaked up by the trees and algae by photosynthesis. But since then we’ve been producing far more CO2 than natural processes can absorb, and the bath has got fuller and fuller. Slowing down the tap does not reduce the water in the bath, it increases it, just less quickly. During lockdown in 2020, we slowed the tap down, but only by 7%, which means we still added 93% of 2019’s carbon to the bath.
Net-zero means stopping the bathwater from rising any further, by reducing the amount coming into the bath, and increasing the amount going out. If the level keeps increasing we risk the catastrophe of civilisation collapse because food will become scarce, cities will flood and law and order will collapse.
A report called “The Big Con: How Big Polluters Are Advancing a “Net Zero” Climate Agenda to Delay, Deceive, and Deny” was recently published by Corporate Accountability, the Global Forest Coalition, and Friends of the Earth International, and is endorsed by over 60 environmental organizations.
“After decades of inaction, corporations are suddenly racing to pledge to achieve “net-zero” emissions. These include fossil fuel giants like BP, Shell, and Total; tech giants like Microsoft and Apple; retailers like Amazon and Walmart; financers like HSBC, Bank of America, and BlackRock; airlines like United and Delta; and food and agriculture corporations like JBS, Nestlé, and Cargill. Polluting corporations are in a race to be the loudest and proudest to pledge “net-zero” emissions by 2050 or some other date in the distant future.”
The report highlights four profound flaws with net zero.
1.Plans are centred on a 2050 timeline with little action taken to reduce emissions at source for decades.
2. Plans rely on improbable schemes to make the emissions disappear, as if by magic.
3. Net-zero assumes one tonne of carbon emitted from any source has the same value as one tonne of carbon sequestered. But there is no guarantee that this carbon won’t later be released to the atmosphere.
4. “Net-zero” schemes ignore the simple truth that the climate crisis is not a problem of technology but a problem of political will and entrenched power relations.
Net zero carbon schemes rely on carbon capture and storage technology which has not been proven to work on a scale that can make any difference to the problem. It will be a massive financial burden on our children, who will already be suffering from an increasingly unstable climate. A plant in Iceland plans to capture 4000 tonnes a year of CO2, but the world is emitting 35 billion tonnes a year, so we would need 9 million of these plants to clean it up!
Carbon neutrality claims are often based on very dubious offsets, such as tree planting where there is no guarantee that the trees won’t be destroyed by the sort of wildfires that have become very common in California, Australia and Siberia. In Sheffield, we are seeing the devastation caused by Ash dieback, with the latest victim being the magnificent tree next to the Cathedral. As the climate warms trees will be increasingly vulnerable to pathogens and insect attacks.
The report asserts that “instead of offering meaningful solutions to justly address the crisis they knowingly created and owning up to their responsibility to act beginning with drastically reducing emissions at source, polluting corporations and governments are advancing ‘net-zero’ plans that require little or nothing in the way of real solutions or real effective emissions cuts.”
Ci Davis is heading for Glasgow from Barnsley. He says ”Net-zero is more than just greenwashing; it is dangerous. It legitimises a gamble and justifies delaying action. It sacrifices the lives and livelihood of people right now and continues to justify the harm. For we know, even if we choose not to recognise, that there are no morally justifiable solutions to the climate breakdown, that will not involve a fundamental change in our values, priorities and how we live our lives. The net in net-zero perpetuates the problem while offering not a single guarantee to finding the solutions. So I will be in Glasgow, where in November the world epicentre of ‘False Solutions’ (each of which will be forged on the mantra of Net), will be located and carrying a strong message for Real Change based around Real Zero.”
It’s vital for the sake of the future of life on this planet, that those who try to convince us they are doing the right thing by greenwashing are called out and held to account. To go back to the bath analogy, we must turn the taps off now, rather than discuss where to place the buckets in the hall in 30 years time!