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Net Zero: How major polluters ‘greenwash’ their rol...

Our Burning Planet


Net Zero: How major polluters ‘greenwash’ their role in the climate crisis and delay real action

(Photo: Unsplash / Mike Marrah on Unsplash)

With the climate crisis increasingly at the top of the priority list for governments, major polluters are using the concept of net zero to ‘greenwash’ themselves on one hand while delaying real action on the other, according to a recent report,

You’re being gaslit by the fossil fuel industry, other corporations, and state-owned enterprises with massive carbon footprints. This is the view of a recent report by Friends of the Earth International in conjunction with Corporate Accountability and Global Forests Coalition called The Big Con: How Big Polluters are advancing a “net zero” climate agenda to delay, deceive, and deny.

Try this thought experiment: it’s the third month of 2020 and the Covid-19 pandemic is starting to put the brakes on life as we know it. But instead of us being asked to cover our noses and mouths — ie, stop Covid emissions at the source — we’re told to deal with infections, deaths and other impacts of today because scientists and Elon Musk will develop technologies to suck all those floating virus particles right out of the air in a few years.

Sounds absurd, right? But that’s the essence of what entrenched interests in polluting industries are doing. Instead of dealing with greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions at the source in the short term (the simple way to stop runaway climate change), they’re saying that at some point in the future the pollution will stop and all that carbon from the atmosphere will be sucked up with technology that doesn’t exist yet.

So goes the quiet, unspoken implication of net zero plans. This is how major polluters cruise on the coattails of a scheme the International Energy Agency and others call net zero

So what exactly is net zero?

Net zero is premised on the notion that when “carbon dioxide removal” techniques are used at the same time that the burning of fossil fuels is reduced, climate change can be halted. The point at which any residual emissions of greenhouse gases are balanced by technologies removing them from the atmosphere is called net zero, according to climate scientists.

National Grid puts it even more simply. Net zero, they say, “refers to the balance between the amount of greenhouse gas produced and the amount removed from the atmosphere. We reach net zero when the amount we add is no more than the amount taken away.”

The middle of the century is the goal that most major companies and countries have identified as their target for reaching net zero. It’s a deceptively simple equation in theory that falls short in reality.

The Big Con report argues that major polluters — under increasing pressure from civil society and governments — are pulling out a well-thumbed playbook. Making use of a familiar set of tricks, major polluters are allegedly using net zero as part of a cynical campaign that involves “greenwashing themselves as the solution on one hand and deceiving the public while delaying real action on the other”.

Pointedly, the report argues that these companies are using net zero “to mask inaction, foist the burden of emissions cuts and pollution avoidance on historically exploited communities, and bet our collective future through ensuring long-term, destructive impact on land and forests, oceans, and through advancing geoengineering technologies”.

As three eminent climate scientists put it: “It [net zero] helps perpetuate a belief in technological salvation and diminishes the sense of urgency surrounding the need to curb emissions now.”

But just who are these big polluters?

“Big polluters” are defined in the report as the “industries, made up of corporations and business or trade associations that represent them whose operations are predominantly responsible for the emissions that have caused and continue to drive the climate crisis”. According to the CDP Carbon Majors Report 2017, just 100 corporate and state-owned entities have been the source of more than 70% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions since 1988 — the year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was established. These emissions, the UN has warned “will significantly worsen the risks of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people”.

The biggest emitter of greenhouse gases is the fossil fuel industry. In the South African context, this means Eskom and Sasol

Eskom operates under the strategic guidance of hydrocarbon enthusiast and Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy Gwede Mantashe, who earlier this year said to Parliament that, “In an alternative universe, one would immediately eliminate fossil fuel-generated energy such as coal and petroleum. However, this is not our reality; our reality is that we have vast reserves of coal and petroleum resources which we continue to exploit.”

Eskom, as Africa’s single largest GHG emitter is, however, “in principle”, committed to reaching net zero by 2050. The utility says that, “The cost of bringing the ageing coal fleet into full compliance with minimum emission standards would exceed R300-billion, which would involve Eskom retrofitting more economical and environmentally friendly technologies on its power stations.” 

Sasol, South Africa’s second-largest polluter and the world’s biggest producer of fuel from coal, recently fell foul of a report by Climate Action 100+. Despite aiming for a 10% reduction in emissions by 2030, the petrochemical giant was found by the report to have emission-reduction targets that either do not meet standards or partially meet GHG emission reductions goals, despite commitments made by the company in its latest Climate Change report. Eskom, it should be said, does not meet any of the criteria in any of Climate Action 100+’s nine key indicators.

The fossil fuel industry isn’t alone though, with industrial food production and agribusiness also adding to GHG emissions. According to a study published in Nature, in 2015, “food-system emissions” represented 34% of total GHG emissions. A full third of GHG emissions on this planet comes from the process that gets your food from farm to fork.

Other major emitters with footprints in South Africa with net zero plans include BP, Shell, Total SA, Nestlé and even Microsoft.

The gulf between the rhetoric of net zero and practical action is perhaps best understood by outlining what the Big Con report explains are four conceptual flaws.

First, a major flaw is that most of the net zero plans announced by businesses and governments have set a 2050 timeline with scant detail about practical, verifiable benchmarks to be taken to reduce emissions at the source before then. This timeline, the authors of the report argue, allows business to continue as usual while affording these companies and governments the reputational benefit without having done any of the work of cutting emissions.

The second major conceptual flaw is that plans to reach net zero rely on untested schemes and technologies that don’t exist (yet) or don’t exist at scale. When Elon Musk offers to pony up $100-million for a contest seeking the best carbon-capture technology, it’s because effective, scalable carbon-capture technology does not exist right now.

And even Bill Gates has his doubts. In an interview with Geekwire, he said: “Geoengineering, we don’t know enough about what the side effects of that would be, and so it is interesting. And at the very least we should understand the problems so that nobody goes and does it unilaterally, because the atmosphere is this important shared resource.

“I certainly wouldn’t want to [pursue geoengineering projects] alone. I’d want to feel like there were at least some countries and a broad set of scientists and other people, otherwise it’s kind of like a mad scientist-type insanity.”

Geoengineering is here defined as “large-scale schemes for intervention in the earth’s oceans, soils and atmosphere with the aim of reducing the effects of climate change, usually temporarily”.

The main categories of geoengineering techniques and technologies are carbon dioxide removal, earth radiation management and solar radiation management.

That latter technique is an area that South Africa has some experience in. Daily Maverick previously reported that in late 2018, UCT researchers embarked on a pioneering study on the potential impacts of solar geoengineering in southern Africa. Dr Romaric Odoulami, the project’s leader, told Daily Maverick at the time that “solar radiation management doesn’t stop climate change. It doesn’t stop global emissions of greenhouse gases. The only thing it does is help to reduce the global temperature by reducing the amount of solar radiation reaching the earth’s surface.”

The third major conceptual flaw of net zero plans is that they assume that one tonne of carbon emitted from any source has the same value as one tonne of carbon captured. This, the report explains, “ignores profound differences between the longevity and stability of geological and terrestrial carbon stocks (from burning fossil fuels).” Targets based on this assumption, therefore, are inherently flawed.

Last, net zero plans postulate that the climate crisis is a problem of technology. The authors of the Big Con report, however, see it as a problem of “political will and entrenched power relations”.

So what is to be done?

The authors of the Big Con report point to Article 6.8 of the Paris Climate Agreement that talks of “integrated, holistic and balanced non-market approaches” through “mitigation, adaptation, finance, technology transfer and capacity-building”.  

More specifically they refer to readily implementable and sector-based solutions and policy tools countries can use at national and local levels. These include rapidly implementing climate finance, technology and capacity schemes, implementing an immediate moratorium on all new fossil fuel extraction, transforming industrial agriculture towards agroecological practices through proper incentives and policies and empowering the public to participate in developing climate solutions. DM/OBP

Absa OBP

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