On World Earth Day, April 22, during a virtual summit, President Biden pledged to cut carbon emissions by 50-52% below 2005 levels by the year 2030. This was greeted with much fanfare by the BBC and the Guardian, although there was precious little detail about how this will be achieved or even whether it is sufficient.

On the same day, under the media radar, a report by leading climate scientists emerged which contained a stark warning about the dangers of pursuing a strategy of net zero emissions. The report called into question the UK’s approach to the climate emergency and reversing years of thinking on the environment.

The three academics – including a former chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – say that for several decades policies based on wishful thinking and highly speculative technologies have held back effective action on the climate and signed a blank cheque for the continued burning of fossil fuels.

James Dyke, Robert Watson, Wolfgang Knorr even felt complicit in this deception, but now feel the time has come to voice their fears and be honest with wider society.

The idea of net zero – the point at which emissions are balanced out by technologies removing them from the atmosphere – is central to the world’s current plan to avoid environmental catastrophe and limit global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels.

But without serious and immediate action to address the root cause of climate change, we will likely blow through that target, risking uncertain and damaging consequences.

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The three authors[i] describe how modelling concepts were developed to give policy makers a way out of making much needed cuts to greenhouse gas emissions. They say:

“As models could easily churn out numbers that saw atmospheric carbon dioxide go as low as one wanted, ever more sophisticated scenarios could be explored which reduced the perceived urgency to reduce fossil fuel use. By including carbon sinks in climate-economic models, a Pandora’s box had been opened.”It’s here we find the genesis of today’s net zero policies…”

Mitigation is now impossible

“We have arrived at the painful realisation that the idea of net zero has licensed a recklessly cavalier ‘burn now, pay later’ approach which has seen carbon emissions continue to soar. It has also hastened the destruction of the natural world by increasing deforestation today, and greatly increases the risk of further devastation in the future.”

Here’s some of the wheezes that have been thrown into the model:

  • Carbon offsetting
  • Carbon Capture
  • Bioenergy Carbon Capture and Storage
  • massive planting schemes for trees
  • bioenergy crops
  • direct air capture
  • solar radiation management – the injection of millions of tons of sulphuric acid into the stratosphere that will reflect some of the Sun’s energy away from the Earth

The authors go on to warn:

“The problems come when it is assumed that these can be deployed at vast scale. This effectively serves as a blank cheque for the continued burning of fossil fuels and the acceleration of habitat destruction… The only way to keep humanity safe is the immediate and sustained radical cuts to greenhouse gas emissions in a socially just way…”

They add: “Current net zero policies will not keep warming to within 1.5°C because they were never intended to. They were and still are driven by a need to protect business as usual, not the climate. If we want to keep people safe then large and sustained cuts to carbon emissions need to happen now. That is the very simple acid test that must be applied to all climate policies. The time for wishful thinking is over.”

While the authors have identified the intention (business as usual) they don’t pose that it is the capitalist system, with its imperative to provide shareholder returns and continually expand which is at the root of the problem. This includes Chinese capitalism which now produces twice as many emissions as the United States and also misreports harmful gas emissions. Ending this profit-driven exploitation of nature is the biggest challenge of all.

[i] Climate scientists: concept of net zero is a dangerous trap
James Dyke, Senior Lecturer in Global Systems, University of Exeter;
Robert Watson, Emeritus Professor in Environmental Sciences, University of East Anglia;
Wolfgang Knorr, Senior Research Scientist, Physical Geography and Ecosystem Science, Lund University