• Alessandro Vitelli

The problem of “net zero”

The media is awash with stories about large companies such as BP and Shell promising to go “net zero” by 2050, as part of the effort to reach the goals of the Paris Agreement.

It’s a worthy effort and deserves some praise, but it also needs clear understanding. “Net zero” does not mean “absolute zero”.

Recently, a publisher I work for (that shall remain nameless) published a story about BP’s new “net zero” goal and explained it like this:

“BP’s worldwide operations emit around 55m tonnes of CO2 equivalent a year, while the carbon in the oil and gas it produces is around 360m tonnes of CO2 equivalent a year – both on an absolute basis.
“Therefore, the “net zero” target by 2050 would equate to a reduction in emissions of around 415m tonnes of CO2 equivalent a year.”

I hope you see the problem. The only way *any* company can reduce its scope 1-2 emissions (that is, emissions caused directly by company operations or the fuels it burns) to zero is by ceasing to exist. And by ceasing to exist, that takes care of the scope 3 emissions (emissions from the use of the company’s products).

So what will these companies do to reach “net zero”? Quite simply, they will make reductions in their direct emissions wherever they can, and to neutralise the rest, they will invest in carbon sinks or buy offsets.

Nobody’s saying that explicitly, but there’s no other way to neutralise emissions that can’t be reduced.

Oil and gas isn’t the only sector with that problem; the steel industry has to work out how to make steel without burning metallurgical coal, the cement industry can’t process limestone without CO2 emissions, and the petrochemicals sector hasn’t developed an alternative to burning fuels to make plastics. And they all need to reach “net zero” as well.

An offset represents a ton of carbon reduced. In the old days of the Kyoto Protocol, it used to mean that someone, somewhere had reduced their emissions compared to a business-as-usual scenario, and that reduction was available to someone who wanted to “offset” their own emissions.

And in the future, it will mean something pretty similar, though there’s a growing enthusiasm to call them “reductions”. It still means, though, that you’re cutting an emission somewhere else – say, planting trees, or capturing CO2 and storing it underground – to offset the emission that you can’t actually reduce yourself.

So when you hear about “net zero”, please remember it doesn’t mean “absolute zero”. Not by a long chalk.

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