Help or hindrance? Why 'Net zero' is not the problem

James Murray
clock • 10 min read
Help or hindrance? Why 'Net zero' is not the problem

Outgoing CCC boss Chris Stark fears the term 'net zero' is becoming 'unhelpful', but any alternative framing for decarbonisation would face precisely the same political and structural challenges

It's all semantics, in this case literally. The outgoing chief executive of the Climate Change Committee (CCC), Chris Stark, has revealed he has reservations about the term 'net zero', to the point where he would be "intensely relaxed about dropping" the slogan.

In an interview with the Guardian ahead of his leaving the Committee this Friday to take up a role as boss of the Carbon Trust, Stark argued attacks on net zero from various culture warriors were taking their toll. "Net zero has definitely become a slogan that I feel occasionally is now unhelpful, because it's so associated with the campaigns against it," he told the newspaper. "That wasn't something I expected… A small group of politicians or political voices has moved in to say that net zero is something that you can't afford, net zero is something that you should be afraid of."

It is worth stressing at this point - not least because those self-same culture warriors will no doubt attempt to wilfully misinterpret Stark's comments - that his issue is with the term 'net zero' and not the net zero target itself, which he insists should be retained. "We've still got to reduce emissions - in the end, that's all that matters," he said. "If it [net zero] is only a slogan, if it is seen as a sort of holding pen for a whole host of cultural issues, then I'm intensely relaxed about dropping it. We keep it as a scientific target, but we don't need to use it as a badge that we keep on every programme… We are talking about cleaning up the economy and making it more productive - you can call that anything you like."

This feels like a significant intervention. Few people have done more to advance UK climate action and make the case for deep decarbonisation than Stark. If he thinks 'net zero' may have become a counterproductive term, then there is clearly some sort of issue here. It is always worth considering if better framing or more effective communication could help accelerate decarbonisation efforts that are not proceeding nearly fast enough.

Stark also makes a seductive argument. 'Net zero' has become a punchbag for Nigel Farage, Suella Braverman, and the Daily Mail, so why not simply drop the term? If you are being dragged into a culture war, why would you want to paint a big green target on your head and stick it above the parapet? Why not keep quiet about the need for sweeping economic transformations and focus on specific policies and the many benefits clean technologies and greener business models can bring instead?

The problem is it is unlikely to prove that simple. The idea it is the term 'net zero' that has stoked the climate culture wars, rather than the need to reach net zero emissions, is a category error.

One of the strengths of the term 'net zero' is that it is rooted in scientific realities. It is shorthand for the commitment made by every government on the planet through the Paris Agreement to "achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century". Taken in conjunction with the treaty's pledge to keep temperature increases 'well below' 2C, it is this goal that has given us the net zero targets and ambitions which now cover over 90 per cent of global GDP.

Delivering on these targets requires the deep decarbonisation of industrialised economies within three decades and the development of a carbon removal industry to balance out any remaining emissions. Such a rapid and wide-ranging transformation is always going to create resistance from those who are understandably concerned about change, as well as legitimately intense debates over how to share the inevitable costs and benefits. It is also bound to face a backlash from polluting vested interests that are seeing centuries-old power structures under threat and cynical reactionaries who recognise another scapegoat they can blame for their own failures.  

The target of criticism is not 'net zero' the term, but net zero the thing.

And it is near impossible to see how you can separate the two. Stark argues he would be relaxed about dropping the term net zero if it is "only a slogan" that is seen as "a sort of holding pen for a whole host of cultural issues". But it is not only a slogan and the complex cultural issues it triggers are entwined with the policies and technologies required to deliver real world decarbonisation.

It is notable that the White House uses the term ‘net zero' much less than European politicians and has been laser focused on promoting the jobs and investment benefits of clean technologies, and its political landscape is arguably more polarised than any other on climate-related issues.

If politicians, businesses, and campaigners stopped talking about 'net zero' it may help dilute some of the most intemperate media and political attacks, but it would barely make a dent in the avalanche of think pieces questioning the efficacy of heat pumps, the feasibility of integrating renewables onto the grid, and the wisdom of trying to tackle climate change at all when China's emissions are rising and we can apparently 'just adapt' to extreme weather. Cost-benefit analyses of different decarbonisation trajectories and climate scenarios would continue to be produced, each with different underlying assumptions that spit out wildly different results based on the authors' appetite for risk, predictions on what will happen to gas prices and interest rates, and understanding of the mind-bending complexity of cascading climate impacts and zero emission energy systems. Good faith critiques of decarbonisation policies would rightly continue, because these issues are complex and require debate. And bad faith attacks aimed at every attempt to cut emissions would also continue, because many of the critics of net zero have zero interest in tackling a climate crisis they do not believe exists.

Even without 'net zero' as an overarching term, the scare stories and misinformation would continue. In fact, they may even intensify as opponents of the net zero transition sense that advocates of climate action will fold if their own goals and policies can be weaponised against them.

Dropping 'net zero' may remove a lightening rod for criticism, but it would also result in the loss of a rallying point for climate action everywhere.

You can make a compelling case that net zero has been one of the most successful climate campaigns in history. It is the basis of the international treaty that revitalised climate efforts on the world stage, it is incorporated to varying degrees into the economic strategies of countries that collectively account for over 90 per cent of GDP, and it has been adopted as a target by over half the world's largest listed companies. The Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero may have lost some members that have been spooked by the demands of decarbonisation and the politicisation of ESG, but it still includes over 675 investors with tens of trillions of dollars of assets under management.

Net zero is also remarkably popular and well understood for what is at heart a scientific and economic concept. According to the most recent government tracker poll, 89 per cent of people have heard of net zero and half claim to know a lot or a fair amount about the concept. More than three quarters of people are very or fairly concerned about climate change, and 52 per cent think net zero will have a positive impact on the economy in the long term compared to just 18 per cent who think it will have a negative impact. Concerns about negative economic impacts are more pronounced in the long term, but separate polling this week again underscored how more than 60 per cent of people in Britain want political parties to move ahead with net zero efforts, while only 10 per cent think achieving net zero would be bad for the economy.

Meanwhile, the party working hardest to weaponise net zero policies - Reform UK - is on 12 per cent in the most recent poll of polls, while a Labour opposition that has made net zero core to its electoral pitch appears to be on track for a landslide victory. The biggest win for the anti net zero culture warriors in recent months has been the Prime Minister repeating some of their arguments, as he diluted a handful of decarbonisation policies. The gambit did nothing to alleviate the Conservative's dire polling performance, and Rishi Sunak is now as unpopular as his immediate predecessor, who, coincidentally, is now doing a sterling job of tying her criticism of net zero with her record of having overseen the most catastrophic economic experiment of modern times.

It would seem strange to ditch a term that has belatedly helped mobilise a wide-ranging coalition in support of some of the boldest climate action in history, all because The Spectator doesn't like it. Finding a new term to describe deep decarbonisation could help take the temperature out of some of the criticism for a few months - although that is far from certain - but it would also risk diluting the clarity and focus that has helped drive so many corporate climate strategies and decarbonisation policies in recent years.

Where Stark is absolutely right is that there is a constant need to be wary of the risk of a political and public backlash against climate action. We are at a potentially decisive point in the UK's net zero transition when the broad political consensus on the critical importance of decarbonisation looks more fragile than at any point in decades. In Kemi Badenoch and Suella Braverman, two of the favourites to be the next Conservative leader have said they would drop or dilute the UK's net zero target. There is speculation that post-election they could be joined in the Party by the UK's most prominent climate sceptic and Donald Trump apologist, Nigel Farage. It is entirely possible a Labour government battling with the worst economic inheritance in modern times could find itself dragged into a political streetfight that cynically targets its climate plans. The climate culture war may only just be getting started.

Against such a backdrop, Stark's advice that climate campaigners should be wary of deliberately stoking divisions deserves to be heeded. Characterising a technology-led transition that should improve lives and livelihoods as a 'radical' departure from everything people know and love comes with considerable risks, especially when a critical component of delivering on net zero goals is the ability to win hearts and minds. Climate action will fail if its critics prove successful in utilising a caricature of the environmental movement to define net zero as hairshirt agenda of sacrifice, puritanism, and degrowth. By the same token, policymakers need to be extremely careful that the costs and benefits of the net zero transition are fairly shared and regressive policies are reformed as quickly as possible. There needs to be a laser-like focus on minimising some of the upfront costs of decarbonisation, especially for those least able to invest in clean technologies.

But if the backlash is intensifying, then dropping the term 'net zero' could inadvertently serve to exacerbate it further, particularly if it is interpreted as a tacit concession to those who erroneously argue the concept is a bad and costly thing. You rarely win culture wars by quietly leaving the battlefield, not least because the culture warriors are remarkably adept at quickly identifying the next target. Whatever terms you favour, you still have to win the argument and demonstrate the real world benefits.

The people who would most welcome the retirement of the term 'net zero' are those who would immediately ratchet up their attacks on the entire concept of decarbonisation. The people who would most lament losing the term are those executives and campaigners who have spent years convincing often sceptical boards and policymakers of the critical importance of net zero targets and the huge benefits they can bring. Net zero by any other name would still be net zero. The words matter. They should be defended against those who would not be appeased by changing the terminology.

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