Can the climate movement avoid a ‘net-zero sum game’?

Karl Burkart
Apr 4 · 6 min read

As described in my previous post on the narrative challenges facing the climate movement, we’ve seen a pronounced shift in the past few years towards a global ‘net-zero’ emissions target. As the window to achieve the “north star” goal of 1.5°C narrows, many have advocated for ‘net-zero by 2050’ (or 2040) as a more pragmatic goal that avoids the myriad complexities surrounding a defined limit to global average temperature rise.

The net-zero framing started to gain traction a few years after the cathartic Copenhagen climate summit in 2009, when leading intellectuals and policy pundits articulated the need for an action-oriented goal. A true powerhouse in the space was Farhana Yamin, a renown environmental lawyer and lead author on three IPCC assessment reports. By 2012, it was becoming clear that the giant ship of the global economy was slowly starting to turn in the right direction, but it would take significantly more time to fully decarbonize the economy, especially within certain sectors, like steel, concrete, and aviation. The 1.5°C carbon budget was just too tight.

Second growth forests in Northern California.

At the same time it was becoming clear that there were opportunities for “negative emissions” specifically from nature-based solutions like reforestation. The Bonn Challenge was launched in 2011 with the goal of restoring 350 million hectares of degraded and deforested land by 2030. These efforts would help restore watersheds, support sustainable livelihoods, and remove a lot of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. A recent scientific text One Earth funded puts the maximum potential of such an effort at 220 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide removal; others think the carbon removal potential is even higher.

Putting two and two together, you could have a win-win scenario, which would buy us some time (and political operating space) to fully decarbonize energy, transportation, and industry through the procurement of carbon offsets, while ramping up much-needed restoration efforts around the world, thus limiting global average temperature rise to 1.5°C. I helped Farhana and team put together a website called ‘Track 0’ to articulate this concept, inviting public and private sector stakeholders to make net-zero emissions pledges. I have to say when I was working on the site, I had no idea about the massive impact that this idea would have.

Emissions trading schemes had been around for a while, so technically this wasn’t a new concept. But net-zero took off like a shot, and Farhana was widely credited for getting the goal of net-zero emissions by 2050 into the 2015 Paris Agreement. Since then, net-zero emissions targets have been adopted by one-fifth of world’s 2000 largest companies as well as countries representing more than 60% of global emissions. And a new high ambition coalition called the Climate Pledge, led by Christiana Figueres’ organization Global Optimism, has over 50 companies committing to net-zero by 2040, a target that is in line with achieving a “good” (66%) chance of limiting temperature rise to 1.5°C.

Everyone can agree, politically speaking, that this is progress. The net-zero platform allows for a new kind of inclusive diplomacy, an approach championed by President Obama, President Biden and his special Climate Envoy John Kerry, allowing major emitters and even fossil fuel companies to join the decarbonization party. But many have pointed out the potential pitfalls of a company or government misusing voluntary carbon offsets to achieve *net* emissions reductions as tactic to delay necessary *gross* emissions reductions. Fossil Fuel companies (like Shell) could have its cake and eat it too, drilling for oil in one pristine ecosystem while simultaneously buying cheap carbon credits in another.

This “net-zero sum game” is a real worry — a scenario in which ecosystem restoration wins at the expense of a real fossil fuel phaseout. Transitioning our global economy away from fossil fuels to clean renewables is the real goal here, the subject of so many hard-fought battles by NGOs and civil society groups to hold major emitters accountable and to drive action to keep fossil fuel reserves permanently in the ground. It’s no wonder that coalitions are now forming to call out the practice as a “greenwashing circus.”

This poses a challenge for the climate movement in unifying behind a global goal of net-zero emissions by 2040. When economist Mark Carney recently proclaimed that voluntary carbon markets will scale 200x (from about $300M annually to $50B or more), many civil society groups lashed out.

The problem, of course, is that he’s technically correct. We actually do need net-zero emissions no later than 2040, and a rapid scale-up of natural restoration offers a way to achieve this target, provided energy decarbonization also proceeds at a rapid pace. One Earth funded a major scientific research to prove the point:

Staying below 1.5°C in global average temperature rise requires net zero emissions by 2035–2040, documented in Achieving the Paris Climate Agreement Goals (Teske et al, 2019) adjusted for the 2020 emissions drop.* Credit: Karl Burkart, One Earth

The science shows that we need to max out both sides of the equation. We have to decarbonize energy, transport, and industry as quickly as possible on the road to 100% renewables by 2050, and we also need to ramp up nature-based carbon removal at the same rapid pace. This will take a lot of financial capital, which the aforementioned Fortune 2000 companies have in spades. Deploying some of that capital to restore ecosystems makes sense, but only if those companies also set measurable targets to reduce their direct carbon emissions. Anyone making a net-zero commitment needs to accompany that commitment with a “real zero” reduction target.

The devil is certainly in the details, which is why many have warned against the coming “net-zero backlash.” Others have argued against net-zero altogether, none more adeptly than Greta Thunberg who at the World Economic Forum declared, “We’re not telling you to keep talking about reaching net-zero emissions or carbon neutrality by cheating and fiddling around with numbers.”

So even though ‘net-zero by 2040’ is a clear, science-based target that the climate movement could, in theory, get behind, it will certainly face an uphill battle, especially if civil society does not come together around a demand for supplementarity — an important concept in the Kyoto Protocol that effectively limited offsets to 5% of total commitments. I would have said that these challenges could be overcome if NGOs push for clarity on gross emissions reduction targets, but what holds me back is the third of our three massive narrative challenges..

Massive Challenge #3: the tech bros are coming.

*The 1.5C model (depicted above) uses a carbon budget of 400 GtCO2 for a 50% chance of 1.5°C per Global Warming of 1.5˚C (IPCC, 2018), reduced from 540 GtCO2 budget to account for historical temperature uncertainties. The target for a good (66%) likelihood of 1.5˚C is 175 GtCO2, reduced to account for biosphere feedbacks (e.g. forest fires, melting permafrost, etc). The model calls for a rapid reduction in fossil fuel emissions (black) and approximately 500 GtCO2 of carbon removal from reforestation and land restoration by 2100 (gold). Approximately 100 GtCO2 of post-COVID energy emissions are anticipated (medium grey) and could theoretically be offset by a rapid phaseout of AFOLU emissions by 2030 (versus SSP2). Natural land carbon sinks (green) absorb CO2 to 2050 but become a contributor of emissions in the second half of the century. Natural ocean carbon sinks continue absorbing CO2 through the century (blue).