Net zero: a dangerous delay tactic?

New targets in the UK, US, and more - but a climate scientist questions whether 'net zero' is helping...
04 May 2021

Interview with 

James Dyke, University of Exeter; Kimberly Nicholas, Lund University


A floating iceberg.


It's been an eventful couple of weeks on the global climate stage. Summits, targets, pledges, decarbonisation plans... all with an eye on the dates by which different countries have agreed to reach net zero emissions. But some scientists have been calling 'net zero' a dangerous trap - a delay tactic that allows politicians to keep avoiding the radical changes they might need to make. So is there solid science behind net zero, or more hot air? Chris Smith brought together two climate experts to find out...

Chris - It's fantastic to be able to welcome to the programme environmental scientist Kimberly Nicholas from Lund University - hello!

Kimberly - Hi, nice to be with you.

Chris - Also with us is global systems expert James Dyke, he's from the University of Exeter. What's a global systems expert, James?

James - It's a bit of earth system science, it's a bit of sustainability science... it's a weird blend of natural sciences and social sciences, really.

Chris - Well here in the UK we have just heard about a new - and it's actually legally binding - promise. This is a clip that was on Sky News...

The UK government has announced what it's calling a 'world-leading target' to cut carbon emissions by 78% by 2035 from 1990 levels.

Chris - James, have you actually had a look at these proposals? What do you think of them?

James - I have had a look - it's promising. So what the UK government has done, it's sort of finally listened to the Committee on Climate Change. So the Committee on Climate Change was an organisation created by the Climate Change Act in a previous government, which was created in order to advise and also monitor the performance of the UK government on its climate change policies. So it doesn't have any ability to tell the government what to do, but the government is kind of obliged to listen to what the Committee on Climate Change says.

Chris - It says it's enshrined in law, so what does that mean if we miss the target? Do we take ourselves to court, slap on wrist? I mean, what happens? None of the politicians who are enshrining this in law will be in jobs by the time that these dates come to pass.

James - It's a very strange situation. Basically the secretary of state has a legal obligation to implement the legislation required for the requisite de-carbonisation. But also the secretary of state has a legal obligation to maximise the economic recovery of oil and gas from the UK's oil and gas fields in the North Sea. So to what extent that "legally binding" really matters, I don't know. I mean, all these policies and announcements need to be considered in the light of the Paris Agreement. And ultimately the Paris Agreement is not legally binding. It's not as if there's going to be a world government or world arbitration which is going to go through each country's climate performance, and basically tell them off, or issue fines, or some kind of punitive measures. So when we say, or when the UK government says, it's going to be enshrined in law, that's really a kind of a statement of intent. Now I would say at this point that if you look at what the UK government is proposing, it's doing some very eyebrow-raising things. For example, the almost complete de-carbonisation of the energy sector by around 2035. Well, let's see how they're going to do that. And when you look into the details, already you can see what looks to be a potentially large deployment of carbon capture storage for the existing gas-fired power stations. That's how they're going to do it in order to be able to sort of offset the legacy infrastructure. Because remember many of these gas-fired plants are not very old- they represent millions, tens of millions, of pounds of capital investment. And the economic argument has always been... I mean, one of the arguments around the delay narrative around climate change is that we've got trillions of dollars of assets in fossil fuel, we can't just be expected to turn it all off and replace it. So, yes, it's welcome. It's still not enough, sorry. If you were to look at some of the work from Professor Kevin Anderson at the Tyndall Center, Kevin has been a long standing critic of even the Committee on Climate Change. Because if you look at the Paris Agreement obligations for the United Kingdom, then we're still not doing enough.

Chris - Arguably, Anna, one of the big things that materials scientists can do for us is to come up with materials that will actually enable us to produce things that are longer lived, to have a smaller carbon footprint, engines will run hotter so they burn less fuel. I mean, those are a couple of simple explanations, but surely material scientists must be thinking about this green argument very, very hard?

Anna - Yeah, absolutely. It's one of the hottest topics in material science at the moment and we're throwing all that we've got at loads of different technologies, from more efficient solar panels to lighter aircraft, as you say, hotter burning engines, all of it is going to play a part. And material scientists will definitely be pulling their own weight as well.

Chris - I suppose LEDs would be right up there, wouldn't they, in terms of what has translated in very recent times into a very big reduction in carbon footprint? Because something extraordinary like 20% of the electricity we use is just going on lighting up buildings, and as a result of that, given how inefficient your average light bulb was before we substituted LED technology, that's an immediate, massive saving.

Anna - Definitely, yeah. Increasing the energy efficiency of our gadgets is certainly something that we as consumers can really see as a positive step forward. My understanding is that one of the biggest impacts can actually be made, rather than in consumer goods, is in industrial processes. And there are steps being taken now, for example, in steel manufacturing to move from sort of fossil fuel fuels to things like hydrogen, which is a much more environmentally friendly fuel. So even in industry, which is a really big emitter of lots of different greenhouse gases, we're trying to use material science to make a big impact.

Chris - Kim, is industry to blame or is it the population to blame? Is it both? Where does most of the carbon footprint of humanity come from?

Kimberly - Well, about three quarters comes from burning fossil fuels - three quarters of the climate warming - and the remaining quarter comes from our use of land and agriculture, especially industrial animal agriculture. So those are the two big systems - the energy and the food system - that we need to transform to stabilise the climate, and also biodiversity, while ensuring a good life for everybody on earth.

Chris - Where would it be the best place to start then? Where's the easiest quick win?

Kimberly - Ha! Let's stop talking about easy, quick wins, because they don't really exist in the climate problem. They ran out about 30 years ago when we had many more attractive options on the table. When we put away that mindset and think about, "who am I and what can I do," then it's a very different answer if you are the CEO of Exxon or if you are a citizen and a parent and someone who is part of a community. But everybody does have a role to play. And I focus a lot on the role of individuals, especially in high income and high emitting countries. And that's who I wrote my new book for, which is really about what can we, as citizens, as consumers, as part of communities, do in our daily lives - both in our own lifestyles and as part of political and economic systems. Because we have much more power than we realise.

Chris - But James, you've recently written this piece for the Conversation where you said this net zero argument is a bit of a fallacy - in fact, it's a dangerous fallacy. Why did you say that?

James - The net zero policies that were being implemented, or are being promised, are dangerous. And they're dangerous for two reasons. The first one is that they sort of license a 'burn now, pay later' approach, in which they allow industries to decarbonise slower with the idea that we'll be able to take the carbon out of the atmosphere. And the second reason they're dangerous is that if they actually do work, or if you try to deploy some of these carbon dioxide removal technologies at scale, then that could have potentially devastating impacts on biodiversity. For many years, the primary approach for carbon dioxide removal was something called BECCS - Bioenergy Carbon Capture and Storage, or sequenced saturation. And the idea here is that rather than burn coal in power stations, we would burn trees, and then we would capture the carbon dioxide that comes out of the chimney. That carbon dioxide will be compressed and then piped to an underground geological reservoir, perhaps a depleted oil and gas field. And because the trees, as they grow, they suck down carbon dioxide from the earth's atmosphere, that is a process which would allow you to generate electricity at the same time as actually reducing the concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere. So for a number of years, about five years, BECCS approaches became completely embedded into the kind of decarbonisation scenarios that all the major governments were looking at. And it's only been relatively recently that, as you've looked at the impacts of BECCS in terms of land use - we could be looking at something like twice the land surface area of India - the impacts on food security, on water security, the displacement of indigenous peoples, that you do realise it would be a complete disaster. So what net zero policies are allowing us to do is to essentially kick the can further down the road - and continue to license politicians, giving them a way out of making what are going to be necessarily really difficult decisions. As Kimberly said, all the low hanging fruit is gone. We've delayed so long that it's only going to be difficult and quite radical solutions, radical change to society, that's going to get us out of this hole.

Chris - Why do you think there is this inertia though? Because when you look at what's been achieved in a relatively short space of time, if you had told someone that - say - a third of the energy being consumed in a country like the UK is currently coming from renewable sources, if you told someone that about 10 years ago, they would have said, "that's not achievable". But we're doing it, and it's going to become even greater. It is achievable, this, isn't it - so why is there still inertia?

James - I mean, the UK is held up as the leading country in terms of action on the climate. And we need to remember the UK has got a particular history. It used to burn a lot of coal, and through the 1980s and 1990s had the dash for gas - so that switching from coal fired to gas fired energy generation is an important reason why the country managed to decarbonise so quickly. Then you've got also the the hollowing out of its industrial base. We don't really make many things in the United Kingdom. Many of those things are made in China or India, which we import. But in terms of the delay... we are trying to change the metabolism of our civilisation that's been powering it for 300 years. And we are trying to do that in about three decades. All the power that we see - and that's power literally generated in terms of electricity, but also the political power, the wealth, the influence that has been built up over these centuries - has to somehow be radically changed. So it's no surprise that there has been such delay, because what we're seeking to do, at the end of the day, is take power and influence away from some of the most powerful and influential organisations. And they're not going to suddenly wake up in the morning and go, "you know what, you're right? So perhaps I would see the current policy announcements, these net zero policy announcements, as being the kind of latest manifestation of delay. Previously it was, "there isn't such a thing as climate change." "Well, it is, but we're not responsible." "Well, we're responsible, but it's not going to be dangerous." "Well we can't decarbonise quickly."

Chris - Kim, do you go along with that? Because to my mind, the problem we face is that the political cycle in many countries is four, five years. Politicians want to get reelected. Therefore they will do what will get them re-elected, and things that fall outside the scope of an immediate parliament become someone else's problem. And it's that near term thinking that is the problem we have with long-term issues like this.

Kimberly - Definitely politics are a very large part of the problem. We have the technology today to decarbonise about 75% of emissions. That was work by Steve Davis in Science a couple of years ago. And since we know we need to cut about half of emissions by 2030, we have more than enough to do for the next decade while researchers close some of the last mile problems. So we are not waiting on science and technology to save us, but politics has been far too slow. We know that global policies to date over the last several decades have only avoided about one year's worth of emissions. So the policies we have are... I cannot overstate how drastically insufficient they are. And at the moment we're headed for something like three degrees of global warming. That is a really terrifying prospect to me. So we definitely need more ambitious climate policies and climate action. And we know that actually climate action is politically popular. It's widely supported. Ot has large majorities, especially clean energy, is extremely politically popular. It's helpful that it also creates jobs, which is very important. We also know that politicians don't hear very much from their constituents about how important climate policy is to them. At the same time, we have organised very well-funded industry groups; for example, the fossil fuel lobby and other fossil based industries, have historically spent about 10 times more money lobbying in the US than, for example, renewable energies. So there's a tremendously unequal playing field that is serving to lock in the current system.

Chris - Is not part of the issue, though, that,if I were a politician and I wanted to make my country look fantastic from a climate point of view and a carbon emissions point of view, I could just basically outsource anything that was bad as a net emitter to another country, and then my figures would look fantastic?

Kimberly - That is a problem, but I think that problem sometimes gets overstated. The majority of emissions - if you look at territorial emissions, which is what countries are responsible for under the Paris agreement - it's emissions that arise within a country's own borders. Those are for all countries the majority of their emissions, something like 80% in Sweden, for example. So yes, we do import some of our emissions from countries that are doing more heavy production nowadays, but we also have a lot of responsibility and opportunity to quickly decarbonise ourselves.


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