Net-Zero is not the solution – why and how to achieve Real-Zero

in Climate in Impact

This is an amended version of an article originally published by Michael Reibel Boesen of “The Weekly Climate”  in collaboration with Lars Kohler.

Executive Summary

Net-zero means pollute now, pay later. Most net-zero plans hinges on carbon removal to solve the climate problem and given how immature most carbon removal technologies are that’s just not realistic. Even carbon removal experts says that. But that’s not to say that carbon removal is not important — it is vital! But not as the primary way we solve the climate crisis (news flash: There are no single and primary way we solve the climate crisis, instead there are 1000s of ways). One clear way would be to strongly encourage politicians to divide the net-zero targets into two: Emission reductions and carbon removals. The most important thing you can personally do is talk to people about what net-zero mean and let’s get this on the political agenda.

The most important discussion of our time

“We’re going net-zero!” seems to be the mating call of politicians these days. Climate science tells us that we must get to 50% by 2030, and 0% by 2050. When climate science says 50% and 0% they mean 50% and 0%. We emit 40Gt today. In 2030 we must emit 20Gt. In 2050, 0Gt. That’s real zero. If you measure CO2 concentrations in the air by 2050 it has to be stable at that point. So how do we get to that point?

There are only two ways:

  1. Reduce current emissions
  2. Remove carbon permanently from the atmosphere

That’s it. That’s the choices we have. Both of these though have a tremendous amount of solutions. For reducing emissions, you can stop eating beef, you can shut down coal power plants, you can consume less electricity, you can install solar panels, you can replace your gas furnace with a heat pumps, you can replace your aging fossil fuel based car with electric cars etc. So many solutions: Some technological, some social, some political, some behavioral. For removing carbon from the atmosphere… Well there are about 10. And none of them are very good (yet). But we’ll get to that in another deep dive.

Net-zero = business as usual + hoping for a removal miracle

First we need to discuss what net-zero means. A net-zero plan consists of a plan to reduce emissions and a plan to remove carbon from the atmosphere. In itself, this kind of makes sense. But the problem is that all net-zero plans we know of are heavily focussed on the removal aspect. This means in effect turning nature into a spreadsheet in which you can pollute as long as you remove emissions too. This is done via offsets, investing in novel carbon removal technologies and so on. This means that if we pollute 1Gt we can just buy offsets for 1Gt too and we will have reached net-zero emissions. With this clever accounting trick we can keep on pumping CO2 into the atmosphere as long as decide not to cut down some specific trees that somebody have called an offset.

In essence what this means is that each time you hear a net-zero plan being announced you should hear the words: “we’re going to keep on polluting and pay for it later”. Net-zero means continuing business as usual and hope that a unicorn will stop by and burp up a magical technology that will fix everything. Because net-zero won’t.

A clear cut example of what net-zero means was seen last week with Shell’s announcement of their carbon neutral ship filled with fossil gas sailing across the Atlantic. Yes according to what net-zero means, this ship is net-zero. But do we really want to burn that gas and keep our emissions rising? We’ll take a deeper deep dive into this and what’s up with offsets later this week.

Critique of net-zero doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do carbon removal

A key point to make at this point is that just because net-zero targets suck doesn’t meant that carbon removal does. We need carbon removal and we need it badly. Even if we manage to reduce our emissions to 0% then we will still have too much CO2 in the atmosphere so we will need carbon removal on a gigaton scale to help lower the temperature on the Earth, but it is pure fantasy to believe that we can scale carbon removal to 40+ Gt in 10-30 years.

As with all other climate solutions, carbon removal is not THE solution to the climate crisis. It has been shown countless of times how far behind the technology is. In a recent article by Ketan Joshi he showed just how far away carbon removal technologies are — and it’s quite staggering.

If we look at any technology humans have invented, I can only think of one that comes close to being Gt scale and that is the cement industry. Humanity makes several gigatons of cement every year. The first patent on cement was taking more than 100 years ago and the technology dates back to the middle ages. It has taken us, best case, 100 years to get to gigaton scale on something as “simple” as cement.

Real-zero is a combination of reduction and removal

This brings us to the key point, that real zero is a weighted combination of reduction and removal with a vast, vast weight put on reduction for the simple reason that we know how to do it. It may be hard to do but at least we know how. We know the exact steps to take, we can sit down and for each country write out each step they must take to do it.

For carbon removal it’s not so simple. We have currently around 10 technologies that can do it. From trees to direct air capture and just about all of them aren’t very good. In fact the integrated assessment models used to make net-zero plans have been switching around which technologies to prioritize for this exact reason. Historically, the models started out pointing at carbon capture and storage (CCS), i.e. put something on top of a smokestack, scrub the CO2 clean and bury it. Pretty quickly the models found out that doing this makes no financial sense whatsoever. Then the models turned towards Bio Energy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS). The basic idea is to grow trees, burn them, capture the carbon using CCS and then bury it. This one of the first negative emission technologies considered by the models. But it had a similar issue, CCS makes little financial sense. But now we also have a biodiversity issue, because the area needed to sustain humanity’s lust for energy is so huge that these big monoculture tree plantations would ruin biodiversity. And that’s just a few issues.

Then the models turned to Direct Air Capture (DAC) in which giant machines are constructed that suck in ambient air and then build a filter that can capture the 419 CO2 molecules out of 1 million molecules and bury those somewhere. Similar problem. DAC is too expensive. From DAC the models went to more hardcore geo-engineering techniques, things like solar radiation management in the incoming energy from the sun can be dispersed by injecting large amounts of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere. Finally, the models went to overshoot scenarios in which they’re planning how we can adapt to temperatures that are going haywire. Not really very promising.

From reading the above you may think that we shouldn’t do carbon removal because none of the technologies can’t be used as the savior. But that’s not true. The important point to realize here is that we will extremely like need a little bit of ALL the carbon removal technologies plus some we haven’t even invented yet. By using all of them we also mitigate some of the downsides that each one of them have. Take BECCS for instance. BECCS doesn’t work if it’s the only carbon removal solution, but it could work on agricultural waste and other biomass based waste products. As an engineer I always look for things that are black or white, but here it’s all grey. And we need all the grey stuff we can get to solve this problem.

As the IEA puts its: “Most of the global reductions in CO2 emissions between now and 2030 in the net zero pathway come from technologies readily available today. But in 2050, almost half the reductions come from technologies that are currently only at the demonstration or prototype phase.”. The statement makes clear that both, rapid deployment of solutions at hand AND climate innovation are urgently needed.

Why net-zero in the first place?

If net-zero is such a silly thing to aim for, then why do it? Lars’ answer to that question was crystal clear: “Because politically, it’s a safe territory”. The moment politicians start messing around with people’s hamburgers they will lose the next election. And if done poorly with little social justice, there will even be protests as we saw with the France’s Yellow Vests protests. Similar to our agriculture discussion from last week we humans seem to have an innate understanding that we’re in control of Mother Nature. We just build machines and do stuff and burn things and shape Mother Nature to our liking, when in fact nothing could be further from the truth. This is a bitter pill to swallow as one such as myself who’s a technologist by heart, but looking at the data it’s clearly true. I mean just look at how the west coast is already burning! Look at how much it burnt last time. Look at the temperature increases over the past 100 years. We are not in control. We’re being dragged around by Mother Nature and we better start respecting her.

We asked Lars’ point blank what he would do if he were prime minister of the world. His advice was that the politicians must change the debate from: “We’ll take your beef!” to “look at how healthy you can become”. Show people how much better the world we’re going to live in if we do these changes. He also highlighted that it’s extremely important to build in a strong just transition piece in all legislations so nobody will end up feeling like the Yellow Vests did. The wealthy of course should contribute to this, but again here the debate can be changed: From “We take your money” to “look at what big and positive change you can become a part of and part responsible for”.

The way forward: Split the targets!

One obvious and really low hanging fruit that we could do is to simply split the net-zero target in two as was recently suggested by a group of climate scientists and then just last week by Dr. Jonathan Foley of Project Drawdown. One target focussing on actual emissions reductions and another on carbon removal. This will have the effect that people will see how much politicians today rely on unicorn technologies to solve the climate crisis. This might have the effect that people will see that there are no other options but to reduce emissions and some carbon removal at the end (if anybody has the time to lead such a project, let me know).

One other way you can help is to support the NGOs of your choice whether Green Transition Denmark, 350 or others. They’re up against the strong dark forces of multi billion $ a year fossil fuel and agriculture lobbies. They need all the support you can get.

We need to shout this message from the roof tops: Net zero is not enough. We need a clear differentiation between removed emissions and reduced emissions.