Net zero isn’t enough: Congress must fight harder for climate

By Shaye Wolf, opinion contributor — 03/03/20

There’s a new climate buzzword taking hold of Congress: “net zero.” 

Net zero climate targets purport to remove as much carbon from the atmosphere as is put in typically by 2050. From the CLEAN Future Act to the American Public Lands and Waters Climate Solution Act, it is becoming the defining goal of national climate legislation. 

While net zero may sound good on the surface, the fact that it’s being embraced by the biggest carbon polluters, including some fossil fuel companies and big utilities, should raise a huge red flag. 

The unfortunate reality is net zero targets are too distant, too vague and too easily manipulated to spur the ambitious change needed to avert the climate crisis. In effect, net zero is one of the oldest moves in the D.C. playbook: passing the buck to future generations rather than taking necessary action now.

The first major problem with net zero is that it takes the focus off the need to drastically cut fossil fuel emissions in the next 10 years.

The science from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and United Nations is clear: CO2 emissions from fossil fuels must be cut by half in this decade globally— and faster than that in the United States — to achieve a 1.5-degree climate target and limit the worst damage of the climate crisis.

Net zero targets that kick responsibility 30 years into the future give polluters cover to blow right past those crucial 10-year targets for emission cuts, resulting in a dangerous postponement of urgent action.

Case in point, the CLEAN Future Act does not explicitly require near-term reductions in fossil fuel production or use. Instead, it incentivizes their continued use by setting a “clean energy standard” for power plants that would count fossil fuels like gas as a clean energy source.

A second major problem is that net zero relies on risky and potentially dangerous technology for carbon dioxide removal, or CDR. Net zero targets do not distinguish between the reduction of fossil fuel emissions and the removal of carbon from the atmosphere. As a result, fossil fuel production and use is allowed to continue with the promise that CO2 pollution — in potentially enormous amounts — will be removed in the future.

While cutting fossil fuel emissions is safe and permanent, CO2 removal methods are vulnerable to leakage, unproven at scale and often imperil the environment and vulnerable human populations. As the IPCC warned in its 2018 report, “Most CDR technologies remain largely unproven to date and raise substantial concerns about adverse side effects on environmental and social sustainability.”

The third big problem is net zero approaches are uniquely vulnerable to false accounting and manipulation.

The carbon offsetting mechanism in net zero plans — where emission cuts are counterbalanced by CO2 removal in a single target, despite having very different risks and challenges — is typically paired with market-based carbon trading schemes. These have repeatedly failed to reduce emissions, while concentrating pollution in marginalized communities and encouraging land grabs from indigenous peoples.

But the inadequacy of net zero is not an excuse for inaction. It simply highlights how urgent it is that we push Congress to adopt climate solutions that truly match the scale of the crisis. And those solutions are not 30 years down the road — they are in front of us today.

Congress must set an unambiguous 10-year target to cut fossil fuel emissions at the rate science, equity and climate justice demand. The target for the U.S., endorsed by more than 500 groups, is slashing domestic fossil fuel pollution by at least 70 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.

Accomplishing this target means that the vast majority of the world’s fossil fuels must remain in the ground, as reiterated by a landmark 2019 United Nations report. The science is clear that there is no room for new fossil fuel extraction, and much existing production must be phased out to meet a 1.5-degree climate target. Congress must end new fossil fuel leasing and infrastructure, ban fracking and phase out existing extraction, with a just transition to clean energy.

Finally, with an eye toward the middle of the century, Congress should support an honest “near zero” target. Near zero pushes innovation in more difficult-to-decarbonize sectors while keeping the focus on reducing fossil fuels by eliminating the problematic offsetting mechanism of net zero targets.

It’s easy to see net zero’s appeal: it’s relatively painless in the short term and counts on future generations to clean up our mess. But that’s an inexcusable response to an urgent problem. If Congress cares about leaving a livable world for future generations, it must take bold action now, rather than pass the buck under the cover of a new catchphrase.

Shaye Wolf, Ph.D., is climate science director at the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity.