Concerns about the efficacy of net zero targets are justified, but could condemnation of the concept from Greta Thunberg and others inadvertently serve to undermine efforts to decarbonise?
"The enemy of a good plan is the dream of a perfect one"
Carl von Clausewitz, 1780-1831
The backlash is underway. And it's coming from the unlikeliest of quarters.
For much of the past two years the global push to deliver net zero emissions has enjoyed a remarkable golden run. National and state governments have rushed to announce long term net zero emissions goals, to the point where around two thirds of global GDP is now covered by some form of target. Businesses and investors have followed suit, with over 2,100 of the world's largest corporates having set net zero goals under the UN-backed Race to Zero campaign while asset managers and owners worth trillions of dollars have pledged to deliver net zero emission portfolios by mid-century at the latest.
Less than six years on from the Paris Agreement, the combination of the landmark accord's 1.5C temperature goal and its commitment to "achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century" has unleashed one of the fastest and most consequential corporate trends since the inception of the first Industrial Revolution. It is, in many regards, one of the most successful environmental campaigns in history.
And now it is facing fierce criticism not just from the perennial climate-denying opponents of climate action, who allege the net zero mission is an exorbitantly expensive and unnecessary pipe dream, but also from a growing number of the world's most influential and respected environmental campaigners and scientists.
It seems each story announcing a fresh net zero pledge now sparks outraged warnings on social media that "net zero is not zero" or heartfelt explanations as to why net zero commitments are meaningless 'greenwash' and what is needed is "real zero", like, yesterday. This critique has been amplified by Greta Thunberg, who has used her huge Twitter platform and vital position as one of the world's only functioning accountability mechanisms to warn that "net zero targets" are "being used as excuses to postpone real action". "Yes we need to balance out some emissions that can't be eliminated (agriculture etc)," she argued in April. "But as it is now I dare to claim that these distant net zero targets aren't about that, rather they're about communication tactics and making it seem like we're acting without having to change."
So, what is going on here? Why is the concept of net zero emissions under fire just as it emerges as the "North Star" for economic and industrial strategy in many of the world's most powerful economies? And does it matter? Will well-intentioned critiques of demonstrably inadequate net zero strategies catalyse more ambitious decarbonisation plans or will they inadvertently undermine a trend that has helped successfully push climate issues up the corporate and political agenda?
The first thing to say is that much of the criticism of net zero strategies is entirely justified. The net zero narrative's focus on negative emissions technologies and techniques - all of which face massive technological, economic, and land use challenges when used at scale - does risk being used to justify continued investment in fossil fuel infrastructure and distract from the urgent need to deliver sustained radical cuts to greenhouse gas emissions in a socially just way. And yet, I can't help feel these legitimate critiques of the weaknesses of various net zero strategies risk tipping over into a knee-jerk dismissal of the concept as a whole - a concept that will be right at the heart of any attempt to avert a climate catastrophe, regardless of the rhetorical framing that is deployed.
The elision of "net zero" and "not zero" may be largely confined to social media, but as it gathers momentum it risks tarnishing the credibility of all the myriad good faith attempts to harness a portfolio of solutions to slash emissions as quickly as possible and deliver on the goals of the Paris Agreement. A blanket dismissal of the net zero concept demands not that polluters come forward with credible strategies that could work in both principle and in practice, but rather fuels the impression any and all plans are 'greenwash' and are not worthy of consideration. The recent attacks on the idea of net zero may have shone a necessary spotlight on some of the concept's potential flaws, but they are also guilty of glossing over its many strengths.
First up, as even its detractors accept, net zero is scientifically sound. If you want to stop the world warming you need to stop concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere from rising. To do that you need emissions into the atmosphere and absorption of greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere to be in balance (and if you want to lower temperatures back towards pre-industrial levels you need rates of absorption that are higher than rates of emissions so as to deliver net negative or 'beyond zero' emissions). It's that simple. You could argue that balance can be achieved by halting anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions altogether, by getting to 'real zero'. But given inevitable emissions from agriculture and the huge technical difficulty of fully decarbonising aviation and certain industrial practices within the required timeframes 'real zero' targets surf the line between implausible and impossible. We can and must argue about how much greenhouse gas absorption is feasible, that is to say how big the 'net' in net zero can be. But the overarching concept is scientifically robust.
And that scientifically robust goal is at the centre of the entire global framework that is attempting, in the most challenging of circumstances, to avert a climate catastrophe. Net zero is the beating heart of both the original UN Climate Convention of 1992 and the Paris Agreement. Given what is at stake, the commitment to "achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century" is one of the most important lines in any treaty in human history.
Real world action
The ripples that have flowed from the inclusion of a de facto net zero target in the Paris Agreement would take a book, or more accurately a library of books, to document. But it is worth highlighting just some of the ways it has triggered real world climate action.
As previously mentioned two thirds of global GDP is generated in economies that now have some form of net zero goal in place, but crucially in scores of countries those targets have been put on a legal footing. Putting net zero targets onto statute books has real legal and institutional value. As the UK has demonstrated it informs Ministers' day to day policy decisions on pain of legal challenge, it provides a legislative underpinning for the net zero mandates that have subsequently been awarded to the Bank of England, numerous key regulators, and the proposed National Infrastructure Bank, and it hands civil society a legal stick with which to batter current and future governments if they start to miss decarbonisation goals.
It also provides an explicit signal to businesses and investors that the net zero transition is non-negotiable and irreversible, providing them with greater confidence that while decarbonisation policies may be reformed over time they will persist through multiple parliamentary cycles. Businesses have responded with literally thousands of new net zero targets and strategies. The UN-backed Race to Zero campaign now includes more than 2,100 businesses, 120 investors, 20 regions, and 500 universities. The Net Zero Asset Owners Alliance hold $5.7tr of assets, the Net Zero Asset Managers Initiative boasts nearly 90 signatories with $37tr of assets under management. The investors and blue chips that are leading this charge are already exploring how to use their lobbying, shareholder, and purchasing power to ensure net zero strategies spread through their labyrinthine portfolios and supply chains.
Thunberg is right, some of these businesses are attempting to game the net zero system and use long term climate goals to protect the fraying social license that allows them to continue to pollute. But for all the companies simply setting fantastical multi-decadal net zero targets and chucking money at questionable carbon offset firms, there are many more that are approaching this endeavour in good faith. They are setting hugely ambitious emissions targets for five and 10 years hence. They are investing billions of dollars in deploying renewables, developing zero emission transport technologies, pioneering the manufacture of green steel, and completely reimagining their operating models. They are serious when they say they want to drive a purpose-led Green Industrial Revolution, partly because it is the right thing to do, partly because that is where the biggest commercial opportunities of the 21st century lie, and partly because they know as well as any climate scientist that 3C+ of warming would be catastrophic. Enlightened self-interest is an actual thing.
Meanwhile, the governance architecture for net zero targets is improving all the time. For example, the Institutional Investors Group on Climate Change (IIGCC) recently published a detailed new framework setting out how investors could develop net zero portfolio strategies that deliver real world emissions reductions. And just the Race to Zero campaign has strengthened its criteria for companies signed up to the campaign to clarify the need for robust interim targets, immediate action to cut emissions, and the role of carbon sinks in addressing only residual emissions.
This work in defence of net zero is vital because it serves to entrench a concept blessed with characteristics that explain why it has proved so much more effective than previous attempts to push climate action up the political and corporate agenda, which have, to put it bluntly, largely failed.
The net zero concept also has three inherent strengths. Firstly, as many commentators have noted, net zero is all encompassing. Just a few years ago when the UK had a target to cut emissions by 80 per cent by 2050 it was possible for carbon intensive sectors to convince themselves they would be responsible for the remaining 20 per cent of emissions and as such did not really have to engage with decarbonisation. This is not a theoretical fear, it is what actually happened.
Secondly, net zero is already remarkably popular and well understood, especially given the huge complexity those two short words belie. As Tim Lord, a former top civil servant and current senior fellow for net zero at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, observed recently "net zero is a term that's relatively easy to understand - and public/consumer understanding is reasonably high, at least compared to some of the other jargon we use on climate and energy". The most recent UK government Public Attitudes Tracker found that in December 2020 76 per cent of people were aware of the concept of 'Net Zero', up from 52 per cent in March 2020. It is a level of name recognition most politicians or brands would kill for.
And thirdly, net zero strategies do not have to be 100 per cent perfect to still deliver meaningful and rapid progress. Even when net zero strategies are flawed, incomplete, and perhaps even intended as deliberate greenwash, they can still help drive down emissions and marginalise fossil fuels.
No environmentalist wants to defend fossil fuel companies given their deeply damaging, and at times outright criminal, track record. But while an oil major pumping billions of dollars into electric vehicle and renewable energy infrastructure may be engaging in a hedging strategy if you are being generous or blatant greenwash if you are not, they are still pumping billions of dollars into electric vehicle and renewable energy infrastructure. They are, inadvertently or not, helping to create the conditions for the demise of their polluting operations.
Ultimately, net zero's all-encompassing nature gives it real psychological value. One of the overarching principles of behaviour change, whether you are trying to lose weight or decarbonise a global economy, is to tell people your goal. Tie them in to your endeavour and increase the internal pressure on yourself to deliver on the expectations you have publicly set. No one wants to embarrass themselves. As Kurt Vonnegut famously observed "we are what we pretend to be".
Now, I am painfully aware all this risks sounding naively panglossian. Global emissions have risen since the Paris Agreement was signed. Many governments are doubling down on fossil fuel infrastructure to power their post-pandemic recoveries. We are still on track for around 3C of warming this century and even if the various net zero goals of the past few years are met - targets, lest we forget, that necessitate the fastest industrial revolution in human history - we'd still likely experience more than 2C of warming. Such a scenario would represent remarkable progress, but would still obliterate ecosystems, fuel geopolitical and economic instability, and condemn millions of people to untold suffering. One of the many tragedies of working on climate change is the realisation nothing is ever enough, that too much damage has already been done. In this context it is easy to see how all progress looks inadequate, because, let's be honest, it is.
What else have ya got?
But there is one last challenge to those who dismiss net zero as a "trap" or a "distraction", which it is impossible to express without sounding blunt: what else have ya got?
Where is the alternative plan that is more credible than the admittedly flawed and imperfect attempt to assemble the largest coalition in human history to deploy a portfolio of solutions to first halve emissions by the 2030s, and then achieve net zero emissions by 2050 at the latest? What is the strategy that navigates the many roadblocks in the real and political economy so as to drive the fastest transformation in the way civilisation powers itself?
'Listen to the science' or 'real zero' or 'end capitalism' are great slogans, but they've been deployed for decades and pollutocratic capitalism is still here and still polluting. There are various alternative decarbonisation frameworks to net zero available, be they focused on sectoral emissions targets, shorter term goals, or ever more robust political protest, but the idea that they can suddenly defeat the bad actors that are working to exploit loopholes provided by a net zero framework seems ahistorical.
The risk of net zero targets being gamed is not really a function of the net zero concept. It is a function of the way a fossil fuel industry that has driven the global economy for over two centuries has immense in-built political, societal, and financial inertia, and orchestrating its near complete retirement within three decades is a gargantuan task. Whether you deploy net zero or an alternative frame as your guiding principle for tackling the climate crisis, greenwashers and bad actors would still exist, sunk costs and vested interests would still wield considerable power, stranded assets and economic dislocation would still threaten to trigger a public backlash against efforts to decarbonise. This stuff is hard.
The fact is net zero is better at exposing such bad actors and tackling such intractable economic dilemmas than other strategies. Net zero forces opponents of climate action to fight on the battlefield of environmentalists choosing while operating within a framework that will soon demand the complete transformation of their business models. Net zero requires all governments, investors, and businesses to plan for a long term transition and actively minimise the risk of financial and societal stranding. Net zero is capacious enough to incorporate different technologies and political tribes, but restrictive enough to demand deep and rapid decarbonisation. It is, like Winston Churchill's democracy, "the worst form of climate action, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time".
And it's working. Every week brings fresh evidence of survival technologies and genuinely sustainable business models being deployed. It is self-evidently true that is has come too late. With every year that passes it becomes more obvious that the failures of the Kyoto and, most egregiously, the Copenhagen Summit represent were two of the most disastrous events in modern history. But the foundations are fast being laid for a net zero emission global economy that could yet avert climate catastrophe, whilst delivering myriad co-benefits in terms of health, quality of life, and social justice. It promises to ignite a new epoch in human affairs where we move past the extractive model that has dominated since the first human's learnt how to harness fire, and engineer something that is in genuine balance with the only habitable planet in the known universe. Something beautiful. Something worthy of the world we call home.
Will the consensus around the net zero mission hold? It should do. It has made too much progress and is too integral to modern politics and economics to fracture in the face of the first sign of criticism. It has survived Trumpism and the worst the pollutoctratic elite can throw at it. It has been one of the most successful environmental campaigns ever seen. Its strengths far outweigh its weaknesses. It is also working every day to respond to legitimate and welcome critiques of its potential flaws. But ultimately for advocates of the net zero transition the only way to convince its detractors it offers the best route forward is to embrace the first and last rule of any successful narrative: show, don't tell.
This is an abbreviated version of a longer essay that first appeared on BusinessGreen on 20 April.
Want to find out more about the net zero transition? Sign up now for a free pass to the Net Zero Festival.