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Net Zero is a False Narrative and a Dangerous Trap

The debate over the cause of the current climate crisis is over. Greenhouse gas emissions, including carbon emissions, are warming our planet at an accelerating rate, and we need to lower the carbon content of the atmosphere to limit the warming and spiraling climate disruption. But how to do this?

Many scientists agree that the way to do this is to take immediate action to reduce carbon emissions in industrialized nations. This will only happen if we stop the extraction and burning of fossil fuels. Unfortunately, many political leaders have been deceived by a false narrative, which leads some to believe that we can continue emitting CO2 and rely on carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technologies to remove much of the atmospheric carbon. Industrial leaders, and in particular the fossil fuel industry, are claiming that the solution is to achieve “Net Zero by 2050,” whereby we can balance ongoing emissions by recapturing them. 

Net zero relies heavily on problematic, inadequate, and expensive technologies like CCS and CCUS (carbon capture, utilization, and storage). Using carbon capture as a greenlight to extend the life of fossil fuel power plants and delay action is a significant financial and technical risk.  Much of the thinking is based on myths about carbon capture, and carbon offsets

Fossil Fuel Industry Greenwashes While Ramping Up Production

On December 9th, 2022, the United States House Committee On Oversight and Reform released documents that exposed the fossil fuel industry’s continued greenwashing campaign and its failure to reduce emissions. Rep Carolyn Maloney, Chairwoman of the Committee, said “Even though Big Oil CEOs admitted that their products are causing a climate emergency, the documents reveal that the industry has no real plans to clean up its act and is barrelling ahead with plans to pump more dirty fuels for decades to come.” The narrative of “Net Zero by 2050” is a convenient subterfuge. While climate scientists are saying we need to “keep it in the ground,” the fossil fuel industry is increasing production into the future.

Will the Carbon Capture Technology Work?

Carbon capture technology is woefully inadequate to address the huge scale of annual carbon emissions worldwide. Globally, we currently emit about 50 billion tons of CO₂ (or other GHG) per year. However, our capacity to capture and store carbon is only 45 million tons per year, according to the MIT Climate Portal. Even if we were to more-than double that capacity, we would only be storing about 1 ton out of every thousand tons of emitted carbon! IPCC scientists have concluded that CCS is unproven at scale, despite decades of research and billions of dollars in investments.  

Worse, the majority of current carbon capture projects are being used for EOR, or enhanced oil recovery. This means that we are not reducing global carbon emissions, but in fact using CCS as a tool for  increasing oil production and carbon emissions. Many observers see CCS as a dangerous distraction from the real work of decreasing our dependence on fossil fuels. For a deep dive on this, see Carbon Capture Takes Center Stage, But Is Its Promise an Illusion? by Inside Climate News.

Is Carbon Capture and Sequestration Safe?

There are also questions about the safety of carbon capture technologies. Carbon capture relies on toxic solvents, and we don’t have any sustainable or economical solutions to dispose of all these toxic chemicals. In addition, long-term storage solutions are risky. Reliance on carbon capture would involve the need to store the carbon underground. This would necessitate an immense buildout of a network of pipelines to transport carbon dioxide (CO₂) under high pressures to particular locations. CO₂ is a potentially lethal and corrosive gas. If a pipeline leaks, the CO₂ sinks to the ground, can asphyxiate people and animals, and kill plants. A 2020 pipeline rupture in Satartia Mississippi showed how ill-prepared we are for such events. See also this NPR piece: The U.S. is expanding CO2 pipelines. One poisoned town wants you to know its story.

Can We Pay for Capturing All that Carbon?

CCS is prohibitively expensive. According to the Belfer Center at Harvard University, current costs average over $100 per ton of carbon captured. (This is why The Carbon Capture, Utilization, and Storage Tax Credit Amendments Act of 2021 allows for a future credit of $120 per ton). Based on these figures, even IF it were possible to capture the 50 billion tons of global GHG emissions being emitted every year, it would cost industrialized nations over $5 trillion annually. This is more than the entire US revenues in 2021. Who will pay?

CalPERS and Net Zero

CalPERS has promoted “Net Zero by 2050” as the end goal of the energy transition for years, starting with the founding of Climate Action 100+, which uses pledges of net zero as metrics of success. CalPERS is a member of the UN’s Net Zero Asset Owners Alliance, which in turn is a member of Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero (GFANZ) .  Although Climate Action 100+ leadership has begun to call for interim decarbonization targets and actions that go beyond “pledges”, CalPERS is loyal to the net zero framework. Moreover, CalPERS expects that its engagement efforts will persuade fossil fuel and other companies to follow through on their own pledges, so that CalPERS can decarbonize its portfolio without having to divest. CalPERS’ hesitation and waffling on proxy voting (it voted in favor of directors and against climate action at Shell’s annual general meeting, for example) amply proves the point that net zero commitments serve only to cause dangerous delays.

Reject the False Narrative of Net Zero and Carbon Capture

The false narrative of net zero – not eliminating emissions but hoping to balance them with carbon capture – has led many scientists to speak out against it. In 2021, three climate scientists with more than 80 combined years of experience admitted they had been deceived by the myth of net zero, and wrote an article detailing why the concept of net zero is a dangerous trap. The idea of a “burn now, pay later” approach, justified by unrealistic, incremental, slow approaches to cutting carbon emissions won’t work. Despite decades of data showing ever-rising carbon emissions, political and corporate pressure has led to the embrace of a technology which is impossible to implement at the vast scale needed. Fantastical climate-economic models have given policy makers a convenient excuse to avoid a real climate solution: “immediate and sustained radical cuts to greenhouse gas emissions in a socially just way”. 

These technologies are being used to justify increasing oil production, and delay the inevitable and essential transition to clean energy. They are risky, energy intensive, and expensive. Instead, we need to use our financial resources to accelerate the transition to renewable and clean energy, and lower our carbon emissions by reducing our reliance on fossil fuels. Protecting “business as usual” will never help us to protect our future generations and planet. We will end up paying fossil fuel companies to continue to pollute, and ensure climate chaos.