The Trouble with Net Zero

Creator: Nick Humphries. Copyright: This photograph is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs License.

What does net zero mean to you? Does the phrase make you think of blue skies, clean air, and a planet restored to climatic balance? Does it strike you as a fair, balanced, and moderate solution to our climate emergency?


Fossil fuels are damaging our home, our country and the entire world.
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Or are you not quite sure what net zero means? Global warming is, after all, a complex matter. Physics, geology, oceanography, economics, politics, energy — the perspectives that can help us understand and arrest global warming are so numerous that no single person can adopt them all.

In the most general sense, net zero means a balance between carbon dioxide sources and sinks. Every increase in greenhouse gas, such as through burning fossil fuels or releasing methane, is balanced by a process that removes an equivalent amount from the atmosphere. If we could reach net zero and maintain it, atmospheric levels of CO2 would, in theory, peak. Global warming would end. With luck and ingenuity, we might find ways to safely cool the planet to pre-industrial levels. Human beings and other creatures might flourish once again.

But the more you look at the concept of net zero, the more problematic it becomes. Net zero in the areas of physics and chemistry is vastly different from the net zero talked about in political and economic terms. One uses the tools of science to calibrate and measure progress. The other is subject to competing national and financial interests, where different parties all want to claim they are doing the most while minimizing or offloading their costs.

Balancing CO2 sources and sinks would require a transparent and rigorous accounting system with global reach. No such system exists. Greenhouse gas emissions, we are learning, are often undercounted. No one really knows how to measure carbon sinks. As for carbon offsets, which net-zero proponents tout as part of their solution, the accounting is dubious. Double counting of carbon offsets is a critical issue. Offset markets must also guarantee that captured emissions will stay captured.

Anyone who follows the climate story knows it’s damn difficult to reduce emissions. Fossil fuel producers and conservative governments resist emissions reduction measures with all their might. Sometimes this resistance takes the form of pure, mulish stubbornness. At other times the methods of resistance are more subtle, encompassing disinformation, misinformation, and predatory delay.

Aside from resistance, we have decisions to make and priorities to set. How fast can we reduce emissions? How much will each specific action cost? Which CO2 sources can we abate now, using available means? Which sources are truly difficult to abate? Those “residual emissions,” as they’re sometimes called, are hard to define. Sometimes the definitions are technical, but at other times they’re merely political.

Finally, what about carbon dioxide removal, or CDR? How much carbon dioxide do we need to remove from the atmosphere? How long will it take? What will it cost? What resources — land, energy, and water — will it require? If global warming is so serious, why are we not pursuing CDR with the same urgency with which we develop vaccines, explore outer space, or prepare for war?

Ending Fossil Fuels: Why Net Zero Is Not Enough by Holly Jean Buck

There are, in short, many reasons to doubt the net-zero project and look for a better solution — ending fossil fuels. The book Ending Fossil Fuels: Why Net Zero Is Not Enough contains the best analysis I’ve seen on this subject . 

Its author is Holly Jean Buck, a geographer, environmental scientist, and assistant professor of Environment and Sustainability at the University of Buffalo, New York. Ending Fossil Fuels is insightful, informative, and fun to read.

If we’re looking for genuine climate equilibrium and lasting justice, we must end the combustion of fossil fuels. Holly Jean Buck has mapped out the paths we might follow to achieve this end.

I had a great talk with the author of Ending Fossil Fuels, Professor Holly Jean Buck.

If you missed it, please check out our talk on YouTube.

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