FLOP 26 … why Net Zero as used and abused is a sham … and why Glasgow can’t deliver what’s ‘necessary’


November 2021 | Edition 7 |

COP 26 is just around the corner, the biggest assembly of governmental delegations, lobbyists, NGOs, activist groups, and not to forget corporations and their countless conglomerates and initiatives. Glasgow is presented as being a final and decisive moment in time, given the magnitude of the Climate Collapse urgency, clearly defined through recent reports by the IPCC, UN FCCC, IEA, WRI, etc. (see references below). To the big surprise of the Lighthouse Keeper, one term has popped up over the last months that tries to explain the direction we are all asked to take: Net Zero. Why surprise? Let me take you through some thoughts that can later take us to conclusions:

Net Zero isn’t the end goal, and nobody seems to know it

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Most of the Net Zero commitments made by companies have a very long timeline, in most cases ‘until 2050’, often beyond, like China or Saudi Arabia say (see left). These are ‘drill drill, baby’ examples with throwing money at some carbon capture and offset technologies. It leaves us with the feeling that this is veeeery long, and those that make that commitment today will be long gone by that time.

Can we trust them? What do they do in those decades to come? Are they required to show reliable pathways to be ‘in line’ with their commitments at any time?

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And does that commitment include the entire value chain (or cycle) they are responsible for (see Mars example to the right)?

One might feel better that the Science-Based Targets Initiative has put out a standard to safeguard these requirements and offers certification thereof. In a Forbes article we learn: ‘To get certified through the organization’s new Net Zero Standard, companies have to include all of their emissions in their goal, including the pollution that happens in the supply chain or when customers use or throw out products. Companies have to set a goal to cut emissions drastically—by 90% to 95%, or even more for some sectors—by the middle of the century, using offsets for only the small portion of emissions that remain. They also have to set strong short-term goals, […] interim milestones, and these milestones are consistent with the long-term goal of reaching net zero emissions and with limiting warming to 1.5 degrees. Companies also have to commit to disclose their progress every year, and review their targets every five years. The standard adds onto the certification that SBTi already offers, which looks at whether companies’ short-term goals are in line with what science says is necessary to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.’

My r3.0 colleague Bill Baue still wonders: ‘One thing folks should know is that the original method that established this practice in the first place (the Center for Sustainable Organizations piloted it with Unilever subsidiary Ben & Jerry’s in 2006) now aligns with a climate science scenario that achieves net zero in 2027 (sooner than the SBTi Standard), without reliance on controversial BECCS (Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage) while also integrating global equity considerations (which the SBTi Standard doesn’t do, despite the fact that the Dutch Court called them out on this in the prominent Shell case). The irony here is that SBTi removed this method from qualifying for validation in 2018, for reasons only it understands (the reasons it claimed are demonstrably false, and have been called into question in a scientific study).’

Now, set all this aside, here’s my first and foremost biggest issue: Net Zero isn’t the end goal to reach a balance with Planet Earth, and as articulated right now and abused by the many players (and ignored by many more) it is a sham. The following is the best I have heard and understood so far, and it has been an eye-opener for me. It stems from a discussion of Mark McElroy (Center for Sustainable Organisations) and my r3.0 colleague Bill Baue with one of r3.0’s Steering Board members. I’ve condensed it to the most important insights:

  • ‘Even if/when Net Zero is achieved (in approximately 2055 under the IPCC SSP1-1.9 scenario, a leading ‘well below’ 1.5C model), global temperatures will still be in excess of 1.5C over preindustrial levels. In fact, they are not expected to reach their target level of 1.345C in that model until 2100.
  • What that means is that emissions are also expected to go negative right after hitting Net Zero and to stay that way, increasingly so, until at least 2100. Net Zero, then, is just a symbolic milestone on the way to a Net Negative level that would be sufficient to make 1.345C possible. In other words, Net Zero is by no means the target by which the leading science-based temperature, or climate, target can be achieved.
  • Even if organizations hit that target relative to their own emissions by, say, 2050, their Net Zero emissions would still technically be unsustainable. To be sustainable, they’d have to (a) hit the reduction target set for 2100, not just 2055, and (b) also have hit all of the interim targets along the way, since if they fail to do ‘b’, all bets are off for the sufficiency of ‘a’.
  • So the question is, what does SSP1-1.9 say the reduction target in 2100 needs to be in order to arrive at a level of no greater than 1.345C above preindustrial levels? The answer is -135% over 2015 levels (global CO2 only). Net Zero, then, is just another way of saying -100%, the achievement of which is technically unsustainable, since it would still not be low enough to lower temperatures to ‘well- below’ 1.5C. Expressing targets, therefore, in terms of Net Zero amounts to little more than setting targets purely for effect. It just sounds good. Beyond that, hitting Net Zero has no other significance insofar as achieving a ‘well below’ 1.5C target is concerned. It’s just a stopping point along the way.
  • Indeed, even if everyone were to hit the -100% Net Zero target by 2055, global CO2 emissions would still be unsustainable, since global temperatures will still be greater than 1.5C over preindustrial levels. There will still be another forty-five years to go of increasing reductions before we hit the ‘well below’ target of 1.345C under the SSP1-1.9 model.
  • The above doesn’t take into account the question of whether or not carbon dioxide removal (CDR) technologies will actually come into play, which the SSP1-1.9 scenario assumes they will. Some say that we should make no such assumptions, in which case a more realistic Net Zero target date would be closer to 2027 (i.e., for OECD countries, including their international effort-sharing obligations under the Paris Agreement). Even so, to hit Net Zero by 2027 would still not be enough (sustainable), since additional negative targets would still have to be hit thereafter in order to reach the ‘well below’ 1.5C goal. [Note: Everything pertaining to the 2027 target is in accordance with the “1.5-degree LED pathway” as applied in the Climate Equity Reference Calculator (CERC), not to be confused with the “1.5-degree SSP1-1.9 pathway”, which makes no attempt to exclude consideration of BECCS or take country/region-specific effort-sharing obligations under the Paris Agreement into account.]

Why all the fanfare around Net Zero? Net Zero is the same as -100% and the climate science tells us that that will not be enough. It really needs to be -135% (for OECD countries), and that’s just for CO2! So, to simply pick a reduction target in the middle of a much longer trajectory is at best “purely for effect,” and at worst, misleading.

Make the test yourself: How many out there setting targets for Net Zero do you think actually understand that Net Zero means -100% and that in order to reverse climate change and restore it to safe levels, we OECD countries really need to get to -135%? Did you know that Net Zero will not be enough? And if you’re in an OECD country the 1.5C target actually calls for net -135%? And that the leading 1.5C mitigation scenario doesn’t expect that to happen until 2100? Or that Net Zero by 2050 may be way too late, since carbon removal technologies are, according to some, not likely to come into play as quickly (if ever) as expected? Not to mention the effort-sharing implications of the Paris Agreement? Which means that Net Zero targets should really be aiming at 2027, not 2050? Is Greta Thunberg the only person that constantly repeats what’s really needed?

Coverage of Net Zero commitments is way below target

A second point of consideration is that this IPCC scenario only works if all – yes, everybody, everywhere – commits to reduce carbon footprints to (gross) zero, and even accepts what recently came up as another new term – their ‘carbon shadow’ -, longing into their past, and commit to also sequester those, like Microsoft did, and Interface Flor actually does when their strategy ‘Taking the Climate Back’ includes product features in their carpet tiles that actually capture carbon out of the air. So, where are we in that joint commitment? Well, a study by the University of Oxford says that only about 20 percent of the world’s 4,000 largest corporations have yet done so, what about the remaining 80%? Will they all come out of the wizard’s hat within the next two weeks?

Here’s what the study says in detail: ‘Just a couple of years after interest in net zero really took off, the analysis shows that already 769 of these (19%) have a net zero target in place. Together, the commitments cover at least 61% of global greenhouse gas emissions, 68% of global GDP (assessed in purchasing power parity terms) and 56% of the world’s population.  Our analysis shows that these commitments vary hugely in their quality. Already, 20% of existing net zero targets meet a set of basic robustness criteria. […] Some commitments contain key details such as the greenhouse gases covered, clarity on use of offsets, and (for businesses) whether they cover emissions from the company’s operations, value chain and/or products. However, many entities have not published these details as yet. The modest proportion that mandate near-term action also needs addressing.’

Net Zero is a nice way to delay, deceive and deny

Another study by Accountability.org is much more critical about the motives and reliability of the claims, especially made by the big polluters: ‘While the fossil fuel industry is a lead actor in this group, the term also includes other high-emissions and polluting industries, such as industrial food and agribusiness (responsible for one-third of global emissions), aviation (a top ten global emitter), logging, retail, and technology, as well as the groups that advance those industries’ agenda. This also includes financial institutions and insurers that invest trillions into polluting and extractive business models. Across the board, while these corporations are proclaiming climate championship in the form of “net zero” promises, the fine print of their plans tells a very different story—that they will stop at nothing to continue to pocket a profit, and that they have little to no intention of decreasing emissions.’ As I said, ‘drill, drill, baby’ continues as business as usual for some more decades!

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They substantiate their assessment with the following observations:

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What about country specific Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs)?

Just looking at corporations and biggest polluters is one part of the story, but what about the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) that countries have made in lieu of the necessary contributions? In the end there need to be plans, projects and processes to support the journey to ‘gross negative’, or – if seen as a step in that direction – ‘net zero.’ The latest UN FCCC report that just got published a couple of days ago shows a bleak picture. In a Bloomberg article things are summed up quite clearly. It headlines with ‘UN Warns World Is on Course for Catastrophic Warming of 2.7°C’. The UN FCCC Report itself says: ‘The available NDCs of all 191 Parties taken together imply a sizable increase in global GHG emissions in 2030 compared to 2010, of about 16%. According to the latest IPCC findings, such an increase, unless actions are taken immediately, may lead to a temperature rise of about 2.7C by the end of the century.’

The Bloomberg article also mentions: ‘In a separate analysis, the International Energy Agency earlier looked at pledges going out to 2060, including net-zero commitments from most of the world’s largest economies. It concluded that delivering on those would put the Earth on track to warm 2.1°C by 2100. That calculation assumes that countries reduce emissions in the short term on their way to longer term ambitions.’Does that sound like the progress we all need?

Let’s also not forget information that leaked recently about ‘a huge leak of documents seen by BBC News shows how countries are trying to change a crucial scientific report on how to tackle climate change. The leak reveals Saudi Arabia, Japan and Australia are among countries asking the UN to play down the need to move rapidly away from fossil fuels. It also shows some wealthy nations are questioning paying more to poorer states to move to greener technologies. This “lobbying” raises questions for the COP26 climate summit in November.’ Here are just two of many examples:

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NGOs are in love with technology pipe dreams

On October 28, WRI and other NGOs presented the State of Climate Action Report 2021, geared of course towards COP 26. The following is an overview of the benchmark of 40 indicators they presented, showing where we are off track, well off track, stagnant and heading the totally wrong direction. Spoiler: we’re not ON track for any of the 40 indicators.

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I’ll leave that all with you, but one thing became blatantly clear to me: Even the biggest NGOs are totally in love with technological solutions to save humanity from extinction. It seems as if the human being just needs to rely on using technology that is offered to us. This has two major flaws: first, it is not how humans think and function, and secondly: we don’t have the necessary resources to supply that level of ‘gear’, as we at r3.0 know from Prof. Harald Sverdrup’s keynote at our 2020 r3.0 Conference, here the two essential visuals from that keynote:

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Do you get the point? Net Zero or the journey to gross negative isn’t some technological pipe dream, it first and foremost needs all humans to collectively transform our economic system to become regenerative and thriving. Global NGOs seems to have given up on us and play the tech game. I am more and more convinced this won’t get us to system transformation at the scale needed. Simply because it’s not possible, as Prof. Sverdrup’s keynote showed us.

One of r3.0’s Advocation Partners has a similar remark: ‘It’s quite interesting indeed that the best conversations I’ve had this year about rethinking our enabling systems are usually folks who are not deeply entrenched in the climate/enviro (NGO) scene. Those who do, appear to suffer from some degree of tunnel vision. I guess I should call it the ‘try harder’ syndrome: instead of pausing, observing and rethinking whether their current approach is still the right one to pursue and would land us where we want to be, they tend to go for ‘push the same message but just try harder’. It’s like someone who’s trying to talk to you, then he/she notices you don’t appear to be closely listening, and starts to shout and yell louder and louder, expecting that it will eventually ‘land’ that way. Even telling climate folks pushing their ‘1.5C global warming trajectory by 2050’ goals, that this is an obsolete goal that cannot be achieved, leads to almost an absence of a response. Somehow they continue to believe in these improbabilities as if it’s a religion.’

The Grande Finale? Or what should we do?

COP 26 will end up as a big FLOP. And it will not be a big surprise. Brad Zarnett recently summed it up nicely in his article ‘COP 26 will be an epic fail.’ He ends his article with the following paragraphs, that I, as a positive maverick, fully second: ‘Hope is the foundation for a better world but we must be clear on whether that hope is based on facts or illusion; otherwise, we’re just living in a fantasy. We must accept that market solutions have failed to protect our climate. We must accept that we operate from within a toxic system that rewards exploitation and cruelty. We must accept that those who are in positions of power have made their choice to protect the economy before the climate. We must accept that the elite are unmoved by even the most dire scientific warnings. And finally, we must accept that mainstream thinking cannot be transformed — it needs to be replaced.

Once we accept the truth, then we can begin to find solutions and implement the kind of disruptive change that’s needed. The elites are working from a script that leads directly to a future of pain and suffering for all life on the planet. We can’t allow this — not for ourselves and not for our children. We need an economic system that rewards the creation of well-being.’

And here we are at exactly the point where r3.0 sees its role…you know how to find us!

Addendum: (Sunday, October 31st, 12pm) this edition #7 of the Lighthouse Keeper has – within 42 hours since its release – already been the most read of all editions published so far. Respondents ask for more information about solutions. I’d like to refer you to the website of r3.0, offering a set of 9 ‘Blueprints’ (8 already released) that propose a ‘simultaneous leapfrog’ of topics we need to tackle to allow for a feasible information infrastructure that can help to solve our global problems. We don’t need plasters on wounds of an existing colonial, exploitative and intentionally masculine economic system logic, we need to think from the ideal of a regenerative & distributive economy and backcast from there. Also, as the release of ‘The Corona Chronicles – Envisioning a New Normal for Regeneration and Thriving’ was just six months ago, readers tell me how much hope they took from reading the book, and how much clarity they gained from what’s to come and what’s needed. You may be interested in reading it too, please find more information and order info on the A|HEAD|ahead website. Thank you to the thousands of readers who carved out time during this first weekend since the release of Lighthouse Keeper #7. I am happy to hear more!

I’ll finish this Lighthouse Keeper with the just released little film by the UN (in which the dinosaurs urge us to vote against our own extinction) and some more resources for those that have time or interest to drill deeper into the Net Zero sham. Brace yourself and be on the watch (like a Lighthouse Keeper). And don’t expect anything transformative from FLOP 26.

The UN film:

Further resources: