Tightening the Net
Tackling climate procrastination by closing the loopholes in ‘net-zero’ climate goals
The worldwide stampede to adopt net-zero climate goals continues unabated. As a goal net-zero is achieved when any residual carbon emissions are counter-balanced fully by dedicated carbon removal. Delivered at a world level, this might stabilise global temperatures. Almost 70% of states (accounting for 90% of the world’s economic activity) have adopted net-zero goals, as have 40% of the world’s largest corporations. Does this mean climate procrastination is finally coming to an end?
Lots depends upon what net-zero really means. In Which Net Zero, a latest paper in Ethics and International Affairs, Chris Armstrong and I argue that there are critical ambiguities in net-zero policy. We highlight the size of residual emissions, and the distribution of impacts and advantages related to each residual emissions and counterbalancing removals. These ambiguities create loopholes, vulnerable to exploitation by carbon trading and offsetting approaches.
The dimensions of residual emissions really matters. Despite the hype related to each nature-based and engineered types of removals, scientific evaluation indicates that potential sustainable levels of carbon removal could also be as little as 2-5Gt of CO2 per yr (a gigatonne (Gt) is a thousand million tonnes). To offer a way of the amounts involved, the world produces around 2Gt of steel, 2.7Gt of grain (all cereal crops) and 4.5Gt of concrete every year. But total emissions of greenhouse gases are around 50Gt of CO2 ‘equivalents’. Removing 2-5Gt of CO2 every year continues to be an enormous undertaking. Yet if that’s to balance residuals in a net zero world, emissions have to be cut by 90-95%.
Limits on sustainable removals arise primarily in requirements for land, water, materials and clean energy. Many climate model scenarios involve residual emissions of 10-20 Gt-pa. To balance such levels, removals based on bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) would require as much as 1000 million hectares or 3 times India’s land area. But other techniques create similar challenges. Achieving the identical removals through direct air capture, for instance, would require as much as nine times India’s primary energy consumption.
Loose or tight convergence?
Such a ‘loose’, or ‘broad’ convergence, with a lot of removals balancing high remaining emissions, creates problems analogous to those of attempting to balance two elephants on a seesaw or teeter-totter. Not only is it difficult to place elephants on a seesaw, but even when we were to succeed, we’d likely find yourself with a broken seesaw. In other words, trying to realize broad convergence would put unmanageable stresses on society. Each elephants would impose serious harms, typically distributed unfairly. Delivering large removals would likely drive up costs of food and energy, exacerbating food insecurity and fuel poverty. Leaving large residuals would mean continued harms to health from air pollution and continued impacts from fossil fuel extraction and production.
For these reasons, and more, a ‘tight’ or ‘narrow’ convergence – as an alternative balancing two mice on the seesaw – is way preferable. Recent empirical research has confirmed serious reasons to fret on this regard. Evaluation of nations’ plans submitted under Paris accord by Holly Buck and colleagues found that projected residuals averaged almost 20% (or around 10 Gt-pa at a world level). Detailed examination of the claims on land involved in national climate plans published because the Land-Gap Report (pdf) found these exceed even the worst scenarios for BECCS – already demanding 1200 million hectares (closer to 4 times the realm of India). And plenty of corporations have also laid claim to carbon removals of their net zero plans, often promising to offset high levels of residual emissions. One evaluation found that fewer than half of company plans cut residual emissions to lower than 10%. Even worse, many use emissions-intensity targets that will actually allow total emissions to grow.
So future expectations of removals are sky-high. Nonetheless, the brand new State of CDR report from Oxford University and partners reports very limited progress in delivering removals. Annual dedicated removals are actually just 2.3Mt-pa (based on some relatively optimistic assumptions), and set to grow to 11.75Mt-pa by 2025 if all current plans are fulfilled. This continues to be several orders of magnitude below even the minimum needed for balancing residuals alone in a net-zero world.
Recent policy debate has highlighted the necessity for strong quality and accountability standards for carbon removals. It matters that removals are additional, everlasting and properly account for consequential emissions. The European Union has published a legislative proposal on certification of removals, albeit with some critical reactions regarding the role foreseen for impermanent land-based removals or ‘carbon farming’. We’d hope that the teachings in recent revelations regarding the shortcomings of certification schemes for carbon offsets could be learnt because the Commission turns this proposal into laws. At COP27 proposed rules for carbon removals in carbon markets were sent back to the supervisory body for more detailed revision, following criticism especially regarding the shortage of human and indigenous rights protections. Within the private sector a latest guide from Shopify on buying carbon removals, sets non-negotiable standards on additionality, verifiability and sustainability.
But achieving tight convergence implies that tough standards can be needed on each side of the net-zero balance. On the one side we must be sure that removals are real, durable, additional, sustainable and fair. But on the opposite we must also be sure that the residual emissions ‘legitimated’ as counterbalanced by removals (whether through credit trading or other mechanisms) are genuinely unavoidable and socially obligatory.
At COP27 such issues were finally broached, not least consequently of the UN’s High Level Expert Group report on net-zero claims. The report rejected the concept that corporations might claim net-zero compliance based on poor quality credits (comparable to those from non-durable, or non-additional removals). It also highlighted the incompatibility of net zero with latest fossil fuel investment, lobbying against climate motion and intensity based targets.
Nonetheless there may be a desperate have to translate such recommendations into law and policy. Ensuring quality removals is one thing, but given the bounds to sustainable removals, it will be deeply unfair and problematic if that capability was dedicated to offseting luxury emissions for air travel, or other high consumption by global elites. Quality removals have to be matched only to ‘legitimate residuals’.
The Science Based Targets Initiative (SBTI) suggests a world cap on legitimate residuals, compatible with Paris, at not more than 5-10% of current emissions. But this still leaves the prospect that companies perfectly in a position to completely decarbonise might claim 10% residuals and removals; while other businesses creating real social value, but unable to cut back emissions by 90%, might then be treated as not legitimate users of removal ‘offsets’. We’d like a more sophisticated approach to defining ‘legitimate residuals’.
Achieving tight convergence around net-zero, and fairly matching legitimate residuals with quality removals is a key challenge for climate policy in the approaching years. Otherwise the loopholes in net-zero can be exploited in continued climate procrastination. Policy makers cannot afford to depart the delivery of net-zero to carbon markets, where the industrial incentives are for more trading (and a broader convergence with more residuals), lower standards, and for profits before fairness.