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The case for net zero

Tuesday 18 May 2021

As John Kerry wades into the shark tank of net zero debate, this week’s Net Zero Sensemaker gets behind its name


Perhaps it was the blissful spring sunshine or the terracotta roof tiles in the background that made it seem like we’d gone back with John Kerry to a more cheerful and optimistic time. Or maybe it was something he said:

“There’s a false choice here,” Kerry told the BBC’s Andrew Marr. “You don’t have to give up a quality of life to achieve some of the things we know we have to achieve… Here’s a reality for anybody who’s thinking about the rapidity of the [energy] transition. I am told by scientists that 50 per cent of the reductions we have to make to get to net zero by 2050 or 2045 as soon as we can are going to come from technologies that we don’t yet have. That’s just the reality. And people who are realistic about it understand it’s part of the challenge.”

Kerry is President Biden’s climate envoy. He was in Rome at the weekend, but he’ll be in Glasgow for COP26. What he said about quality of life reminded Marr of President Bush Senior. What he said about technology reminded me of Bush Junior. Either way it was a spectacular throwback, and the critics piled on.

Julian Allwood, a Cambridge engineering professor, said there was no practical way a new energy technology could be scaled up far enough to make a difference to world CO2 emissions in the time available. Craig Bennett of UK Wildlife Trusts said it was ridiculous to trust climate mitigation to “some widget that we can’t imagine at the moment”.

But we should cut Kerry some slack. For the Bushes, defending the American way of life and talking about technology as a catch-all climate solution was mainstream conservative politics. For Kerry, it’s like walking a tightrope. As Tom Rivett-Carnac (who helped secure the Paris Agreement) said at our climate summit last month, the concept of net zero is under attack – from those on the left who say it gives polluters a license to offset their emissions and go on greenwashing; and those on the right to whom that sounds just dandy.

It would be a shame if Kerry fell off his tightrope and damaged the case for net zero, for at least four reasons:

  • Net zero is sound. As long as any emissions are genuinely matched by measurable extra carbon sequestration – whether in forests, peat bogs, sea kelp or holes under the ground – net zero is the same as zero.
  • Net zero is working. As a concept it has been astonishingly successful at galvanising support from activists, business and government. It is the reason they’re all on the same side of the arguments for scrapping petrol and diesel in favour of EVs; for phasing out gas and coal in favour of wind and solar; for sinking billions into smart grids and spending political capital on binding national emissions targets. 
  • There is no alternative. As James Murray has argued, human civilisation is not realistically going to uninvent agriculture – which accounts for a third of greenhouse gas emissions – or capitalism. Net zero is a practical approach to an admittedly gargantuan problem in a way that “real zero” is not. 
  • Net zero is not a cop-out. It’s incredibly ambitious. Contrary to the impression given by many years of well-intentioned science journalism, and even by an outdated Nasa briefing, it is not the case that global warming continues for decades or even centuries once net zero has been achieved. It stops, because the natural carbon cycle brings atmospheric CO2 down to a new, lower equilibrium in remarkably short order after humans stop adding to it.  

Why does this matter? It means we can do more than desperate damage limitation. As a recently-translated French study for Carbon Brief said, the swift impact of net zero means “humans have the power to choose their climate future”.

Which brings us to a final point. Kerry was right to talk about technology. “It suggests the right thing, which is that we need a lot of investment in technology to get us where we want to be,” says the climate activist Diana Fox Carney. Citing the moonshot and the invention of the web as inspiration may be the best way to get American businesses properly onside in an upheaval that will mean pain before gain for many of them.

We also need to think big as a species. That same French study (see above) makes clear that it’s only by going beyond net zero to planetary-scale negative emissions that global warming might actually be reversed. That will take technology, whether for satellite-assisted reforestation, geoengineering or mechanical removal of CO2 directly from the air. The prize is huge. We could even regrow the glaciers.

Can we settle for anything less?


Science and Tech

Send it up
Here’s a novel way of putting carbon in the atmosphere: deliberately, from an aeroplane, to cool the planet down. The concept of seeding the upper atmosphere with tiny reflective particles to keep UV out in the manner of a volcanic eruption has been mooted for decades. But it’s ethically fraught and turns out to be a practical headache too. An American team has modelled an approach designed to replicate the effect of huge forest fires that created sooty cumulonimbus clouds reaching to the stratosphere over the Pacific Northwest in 2017. The technique is based on “solar-powered lofting”. You spray aerosols out of aircraft at cruising altitude along with “black carbon” (soot) that absorbs solar radiation because it’s black, warms up, warms the air around it and carries the aerosol particles with it much higher than the aircraft could carry it alone. The catch: this would have to be done on a massive scale to make a difference. The team suggests 20,000 two-hour Boeing 747 flights over a 10-day period. And yes, the aircraft’s emissions feature in the calculations too. Has it really come to this?


Policy

Undersea carbon sinks
We talk a lot about trees and grasslands as carbon sinks, but a report by the UK’s Marine Conservation Society says ecosystems under the sea might be even more important. Seagrass beds in Britain’s coastal waters aren’t in great shape – 44 per cent of them have been lost since 1936 – but these habitats, along with mudflats and saltmarshes, could store up to 60 million tonnes of carbon each year, compared with 28 million tonnes for habitats on land. Restoring coastal ecosystems could help them store even more, which is why the MCS is asking the government to adopt a “Blue Carbon” strategy. The UK is a drop in the ocean here – globally seagrass beds store 20 billion tonnes of carbon. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try it. Step one: rewild the UK’s seas. 


Engagement and Activism

Oil or net zero
A medical student, an SNP activist and a former oil refinery worker are taking the UK government to court over what they say is an “unlawful and irrational” oil and gas production plan for the North Sea. The activists, supported by a coalition of environmental groups like Greenpeace UK and Friends of the Earth Scotland, are arguing that the Oil and Gas Authority’s (OGA) strategy to “maximise economic recovery” for the sector is in conflict with (£) the government’s legally binding commitment to reach net zero emissions by 2050. They say the OGA plan will likely mean more fossil fuel production. This comes after a decision by the government in March to allow companies to keep looking for new oil and gas reserves – as long as the businesses pass a “climate compatibility” test. Either the UK government supports net zero, or it supports more extraction – it can’t do both. 


Eco-nomics

Just tell us
You’d have thought Just Eat would have a carbon footprint to boast about: an app, a website, low head office overheads and a distribution network that depends heavily on bicycles. How carbon intensive can it be? The truth is we don’t know, because even though it’s a FTSE 100 company, and FTSE 100 companies are supposed to report at least their scope 1 and scope 2 emissions, Just Eat doesn’t. There’s a reason for this, as the Tortoise Responsibility 100 team found out. Just Eat recently merged with a Dutch company called Takeaway.com and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy says “the plc reports under Dutch regulations”. Except that it doesn’t do that either. The combined companies’ latest annual report contains no emissions reporting. We asked why and were told there’s no legal requirement to report carbon emissions in the Netherlands, but that they’re working on an accurate measurement for the combined companies and will be setting targets when they have one. Which is great. Meanwhile, how does “decelerating net zero” sound as a slogan – for Just Eat and the Netherlands? 

Do share this around and let us know what you think of it.

Giles Whittell
@GWhittell

Ella Hill
@_EllaHill


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