Tom Pashby reports on the complexities of net zero

30th March 2023


Public awareness of the climate and biodiversity crises reached a crescendo in 2018, with Fridays for Future, Extinction Rebellion and BBC documentaries by Sir David Attenborough driving demand for action from governments and corporations.

One of the most popular solutions which organisations of all shapes and sizes have chosen to pursue is net-zero greenhouse gas emissions, otherwise known as ‘net zero’.

This push towards net zero as a tool for change was in part driven by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2018 report on 1.5°C of global warming stating decadal deadlines for the levels of emissions reductions required to keep global temperatures within a range that is safe for human civilisation.

Since net zero became popular across the political divide in the UK and in many FTSE 100 and 250 corporations, it has attracted praise and criticism. It is liked for its simplicity on the surface – signalling a clear intent to reach overall zero emissions at some point in the future, without dramatically changing the operations of the organisation or state.

This simplicity hides huge complexity – for instance, around baseline years, voluntary action versus statutory requirements, the inclusion of scope 1, 2 and/or 3 emissions, and the range of other actions needed to deliver a habitable planet. There is also no blueprint for action that is shared across the board, despite the best efforts of many within our sector.

The fact that net zero can be viewed in this highly simplistic way allows organisations to purchase vast volumes of carbon offsets and claim to be carbon neutral, despite actively emitting greenhouse gas emissions and making no attempt to decarbonise their actual operations.

In January, The Guardian newspaper published the results of an investigation which found that more than 90% of rainforest carbon offsets from the biggest certifier were ‘worthless’ and may actually worsen the climate emergency.

When the UK government put its net-zero commitment into law, it set a deadline of 2050. This is in line with the science, but falls short when you consider the international climate leadership position the UK claims to hold. It also fails to take into account our historic contribution to the climate crisis and our responsibility for cleaning up the mess we have made.

The 2050 deadline has been viewed by many private companies as the minimum viable deadline to set their own emissions, with some setting separate deadlines for their scope 1, 2 or 3 emissions. It means that a company can claim to be leading the way on climate action because it may be the only one in its sector to have committed to net zero at all, and may only need to start decarbonising decades down the line.

“An investigation [has] found that more than 90% of rainforest carbon offsets from the biggest certifier were ‘worthless’ and may actually worsen the climate emergency”

Net zero has been grasped as a catch-all term to indicate environmental responsibility. The crisis we are in is not limited to the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and resultant warming. We are experiencing the sixth mass extinction event and net-zero commitments will potentially do nothing to protect the genetic diversity which we rely on for food and other ecosystem services.

Some companies take this into account and make sure that the living communities they touch are enabled to thrive. New rules from Defra mean that many developers will need to prove they are having a net positive impact on nature, under its biodiversity net gain framework.

Net zero also fails to guarantee action on climate justice. It allows organisations to think that we all have the same responsibility, whereas those in the Anglosphere and Western world should be doing more than our peers in the majority world. Doing more means spending more money and time and taking more risks, otherwise we will further entrench the colonial, capitalist mindset that landed us in the climate emergency in the first place.

Tom Pashby, AIEMA, is a digital journalist at IEMA

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