As climate ‘net-zero’ plans grow, so do concerns from scientists

Scientists and monitoring groups are growing increasingly alarmed at the slew of vague net-zero pledges that appear to privilege offsets and future technological breakthroughs over short-term emissions cuts.

“They’re not fit for purpose, any of them,” Myles Allen, director of Oxford Net Zero at the University of Oxford said of today’s carbon neutrality plans.

“You can’t offset continued fossil fuel use by planting trees for very long. Nobody has even acknowledged that in their net-zero plans, even the really ambitious countries,” he told AFP.

According to Net Zero Tracker (NZT), 90 percent of global GDP is now covered by some sort of net-zero plan. But it said that the vast majority remain ill-defined.

Take offsets. These are when countries or companies deploy measures—such as tree planting or direct CO2 capture—to compensate for the emissions they produce. NZT found that 91% of country targets, and 48% of public company targets, failed to even specify whether offsets feature in their net-zero plans.

The UN climate change body, UNFCCC, analysed the latest national emissions cutting plans during COP26. It found that they would see emissions increase 13.7% by 2030.

Many countries and businesses plan to deploy mass reforestation as part of net-zero plans. Experts say this is problematic for two reasons.

The first is simple science: Earth’s plants and soil already absorb enormous amounts of manmade CO2 and there are signs that carbon sinks such as tropical forests are reaching saturation point.

“The concern is that the biosphere is turning from a sink to a source by warming itself,” said Allen. “So relying on the biosphere to store fossil carbon is really daft when we may well need all the nature-based solutions we can find just to keep the carbon content of the biosphere stable.”

And because humans have already burned through most of the carbon budget—that is, how much total carbon pollution we can produce before 1.5˚C is breached—there simply isn’t time to delay.

“We need to be very sceptical of any target that doesn’t have clear milestones in terms of how the company is going to halve emissions by 2030,” he said. “Any net-zero target without a 2030 milestone is just unbelievable, basically.”

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