Tuesday, November 02, 2021

What does "Net Zero Is Not Zero" even mean?

At the COP26 climate change conference in Glasgow, there are all the usual protesters and hangers-on that haunt this kind of international conference. At least one of the placards being hoisted by protesters outside the event reads "Net Zero Is Not Zero", and it wasn't entirely clear to me just what this meant. So, of course, I investigated.

It turns out that this protester's complaint concerns the whole concept of "net zero", which many environmentalists see as a dangerous development in the fight against climate change. Country after country has, in recent years, been espousing a commitment to achieve net zero by 2050 (or 2060 in the case of China, Russia and Saudi Arabia, or even 2070 in the case of India). However, this does not mean that, by 2050 (or 2060 or 2070), these countries will cease to emit any carbon dioxide at all.

What "net zero" actually means is that any carbon emissions are "balanced" by measures to remove carbon from the atmosphere, whether this be in the form of mass tree-planting, carbon-capture-and-storage, or more hi-tech solutions like direct air capture devices. That may sound like a reasonable compromise, at first blush, but part of the problem is that it is indeed a compromise, and that it is open to misuse and perversion. 

There is also the phrase "carbon neutral", which is often used interchangeably with "net zero carbon", but may have some different connotations in some cases. "Net zero" usually refers to zero emissions of all owned or controlled types (including electricity generation), while "carbon neutral" refers to all types of emissions including those indirectly associated with an activity or country.

Some industrialized countries certainly seem to be relying on being able purchase carbon offsets from other more carbon-responsible countries. It's arguable whether that kind of figure-fudging should count towards a "net zero" pledge anyway. After all, there are only three countries that are actually carbon negative, Bhutan, Panama and Suriname, and those three tiny countries can't provide carbon indulgences for the rest of the world.

Opponents of this kind of strategy claim that relying on technology to rectify problems caused by technology is no solution at all. Furthermore they say, relying on technology that is not yet fully developed is risky at best. And, perhaps worst of all, having a goal that is decades in the future is just putting off the evil hour, and tantamount to a "burn now, pay later" attitude that the world can ill afford: it diminishes the sense of urgency we need to curb emissions NOW.

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