Opinionista David Hallowes 26 August 2020

False Zero — or are the corporations really trying to save the planet?

The net of net zero is composed of restored nature which will take back the fossil carbon that BP sucks from beneath the earth and burns into the sky. And then there’s the net zero from Shell and Total, from every mining house, from cement and steel makers, from shining corporate buildings, from Bunge and the supermarket giants, from ships and aeroplanes, from Humvees, tanks, gunships and rockets to Mars…

“Net Zero” is the mantra for global corporates who at least want to pretend to have a climate response and some who see that the end of the road is nigh. It is now faithfully echoed in South African boardrooms and repeated even in Cabinet rooms. It signals a new spring season in society’s response to the climate crisis following the long winter of misinformation, obstruction, obfuscation, secrecy, lies and bully tactics that are the stuff of business as usual. 

It is not the first such spring with crowds in the streets chanting in time with the alarms ringing out from climate science. And, like previous spring seasons, it needs nipping in the bud before an adequate climate response threatens the bottom lines. Net zero, then, may be just the thing to save business. Take the case of BP.

BP was “beyond petroleum” back in 2000. And apparently did rather well on it. Even in America, consumers wanted to fill up super-sized SUVs with environmental love before heading out to the back of beyond to bask in nature. BP sold more petroleum. And a few years later it got to go beyond “beyond petroleum” to focus, as investors demanded, on its core business – petroleum. 

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No more fuzzy green stuff.

Till another two decades and 800 Gigatonnes of carbon dioxide later. Investors and other policymakers are now feeling the heat from the climate movement and looking for alibis. BP has obliged. In February 2020, it announced that it is aiming for “net zero” emissions by 2050. So did Shell. So did Total, ENI, Equinor and Repsol.

Anyone scrutinising the global carbon accounts may think 2050 a little late. But never mind the date. What is “net zero”? “Not zero”, says Kevin Anderson. He’s the deputy director of the UK’s leading climate science institution, the Tyndall Centre. So investors and other policymakers might take note. 

Or perhaps not. For he does not tell a comforting tale of how we can emit more now in anticipation of finding wonderful future technologies that enlarge the capacity of “net”. Beyond net zero, we get to net negative. A very elastic net. With no net, says Anderson, the Northern powers need to cut emissions by 10% a year now and 20% after 2025. That would give Southern countries a bit of a break – enough to prepare for 10% annual cuts in the 2030s. 

Except, of course, they’ll none of them do it. Not if they can help it.

So how many tonnes of carbon does BP emit and how many does it expect the net to catch? From operations – blasting, drilling, piping, leaking, shipping, trucking, flaring, refining, spilling, generating etc – it emits 55 million tonnes (Mt CO2). 

Correction. Operations does not include the spilling. Like when the Deepwater Horizon well blew from 4km beneath the seabed and up through another 1.6km of water in the Gulf of Mexico. Mixed oil and gas blasted the hell out of the rig which burnt for two days before sinking under a plume of black smoke. Eleven workers were lost – that is, their bodies were never found. And five million barrels of oil gushed into the sea. That doesn’t count.

In the period 1850 to 2010, emissions from “land use change” – that is, from the all-out assault on forests, wetlands, grasslands and all – has put over 660 gigatonnes (Gt) CO2 into the air. That compares with 1,340 Gt CO2 from burning fossil fuels. Restoring earth is certainly necessary – but it only restores some of the carbon lost in “land use change”. This is above ground carbon. It does not “offset” continued emissions of fossil carbon from below. 

Rosneft also doesn’t count. BP owns 20% of the Russian company – acquired just after it dropped the fuzzy green – and gets 40% of its oil and gas from there. Russia runs on oil, gas and the macho rule of Vlad. So there’ll be none of the fuzzy green, even as the arctic permafrost melts beneath their feet, gas lines buckle, oil tanks collapse and wildfires consume the Siberian forests. So cancel zero on 180 Mt there.

Also not counted is BP’s extensive oil and gas trade. Cancel zero on another 455 Mt CO2.

Then there are “scope 3” emissions. That’s from petro products sold to be burnt in cars, trucks, ships, planes, furnaces, power plants… Whatever. That’s a billion tonnes. But no zero here. Instead, BP says it will reduce the carbon intensity of its products by 50%. That sounds like half a billion tonnes in 2050. But then again, BP intends growing its market. If it halves the carbon intensity but doubles the market, it will end up with… a billion tonnes. 

And how will it reduce the carbon intensity? It starts with gas power – BP emphasises that gas emits half as much carbon as coal power, of which it has none – with a bit of wind and solar on the side. Displacing coal makes for a major expansion of BP’s power business. On the road, it promotes electric cars to add into your local gridlock and goes downhill from there with biofuels produced from monocrops in partnership with agribusiness behemoth Bunge. 

And then there’s carbon capture and storage. This “requires significant upfront investment”, says BP, and hence, “government funding and supportive policy will be crucial to making [it] economically viable”. Not a subsidy, mind. And never mind if it never really works. Like Christmas, it’s the thought that counts.

However, there is another portion of scope 3 emissions that is in the net. That’s for the carbon in the oil and gas that comes from BP’s own wells. That comes to 360 Mt. So, together with the emissions from operations, they’ll go “net zero” on about 415 Mt CO2. Out of 1.7 billion tonnes. 

That 415 Mt may be reduced along with their overall carbon intensity depending on: how big they go on renewables and batteries – just like they didn’t in the 2000s; and how much carbon they capture and pump down the rabbit hole into Wonderland; etc. But it may grow as they grow the business to delight the investors and other policymakers. So how big a stretch is the net?

“Net zero,” they say, means “a balance between anthropogenic emissions and removal by sinks …” These sinks are to be found in “natural climate solutions” – they make that a thing by giving it the acronym NCS – which “can be delivered by restoring and changing the management or use of a wide range of habitats, including wetlands, forests, grasslands and agricultural or coastal areas”.

The carbon markets promoted by the oil majors, mining majors, finance majors and just about every other major, nevertheless demand the equivalence of all carbon. Everything is fungible on the capital markets. Including nature. This is the original fraud which, like sin, we must remember to forget. 

Well, isn’t that a wonderful thing? The net of net zero is composed by restored nature which will take back the fossil carbon that BP sucks from beneath the earth and burns into the sky. And then there’s the net zero from Shell and Total, from every mining house, from cement and steel makers, from shining corporate buildings, from Bunge and the supermarket giants, from ships and aeroplanes, from Humvees, tanks, gunships and rockets to Mars … 

Shell alone would need to forest the whole of Spain – or equivalent – says Shell. Not counting land for biofuels.  

Which begs the question: how many earths would you need to restore? 

In the period 1850 to 2010, emissions from “land use change” – that is, from the all-out assault on forests, wetlands, grasslands and all – has put over 660 gigatonnes (Gt) CO2 into the air. That compares with 1,340 Gt CO2 from burning fossil fuels. Restoring earth is certainly necessary – but it only restores some of the carbon lost in “land use change”. This is above ground carbon. It does not “offset” continued emissions of fossil carbon from below. 

As it is, the assault on the forests is accelerating with carbon losses of some five Gt each year. Big agriculture is burning the tropical forests of the Amazon and of Indonesia. Not least, to grab land for the biofuel crops that Shell and BP want. More wildfires are burning on all continents. And the permafrost melting under Rosneft’s pipelines is disgorging carbon directly into the air. So restoration may be hard put to keep up with the ongoing loss of terrestrial carbon as nature breaks up. 

The carbon markets promoted by the oil majors, mining majors, finance majors and just about every other major, nevertheless demand the equivalence of all carbon. Everything is fungible on the capital markets. Including nature. This is the original fraud which, like sin, we must remember to forget. 

Next question: what do BP, Shell and Total et al mean by a forest? It seems that, as long as there are trees standing, it counts. Never mind if it is a dead land concealed beneath the serried ranks of monocrop plantations. Most of them waiting for the chop. Never mind where the carbon goes next.

And a third question is sitting up and begging: on whose land? Carbon markets have been stuttering along since the mid 2000s with zero impact on emissions. But they added impetus to the land grabs in southern countries where the rights of peasants, pastoralists and forest dwellers can always be expropriated for a sack of money on the right desk. That’s development – even sustainable development. And definitely climate smart, as the World Bank would put it.

When the airlines fly again, after the big bailout post-Covid, we can expect more insistent demands that we buy offsets to meet their net zero commitments. But neither we nor the airline need know the origin of the offset. That will be lost in a dozen trades. That’s the beauty of markets. Money will be made. But you need not see the fraud. Nor the blood. Nor the ruined forests. DM

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