Is Net Zero a Myth or Does Real Climate Research Support Carbon Offsetting as a Strategy?

Written by Lisa Baker

In recent years, the concept of achieving ‘net zero’ carbon emissions has become a central part of the global dialogue on climate change. It represents an ambitious goal to balance the amount of greenhouse gases emitted with the amount removed from the atmosphere by 2050. This target is seen as crucial for keeping global temperature rise within 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, as stipulated by the Paris Agreement. However, as this concept gains traction, it also faces scrutiny and skepticism.

Is net zero a feasible target backed by science, or is it a myth perpetuated by corporate interests? Does real climate research support carbon offsetting as a viable strategy? This article explores these questions, delving into the scientific basis and the practical challenges of carbon offsetting.

The Science Behind Net Zero

The scientific community largely supports the concept of net zero as a necessary goal to prevent catastrophic climate impacts. Climate models used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) suggest that to stabilize global temperatures, human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases must fall to net zero by mid-century. In order to achieve this, climate scientists have called for drastic reductions in emissions across all sectors of the economy, complemented by mechanisms to absorb carbon from the atmosphere, such as reforestation and carbon capture technologies.

Carbon Offsetting as a Strategy

Carbon offsetting involves compensating for emissions by funding equivalent carbon dioxide saving elsewhere, through donating to carbon reduction projects or through buying ‘carbon credits’.

Typical projects attracting  investment via carbon credits include renewable energy installations, forest conservation, and reforestation.

However, while offsetting can play a role in the broader strategy of emissions reduction, the effectiveness and credibility of the whole carbon credits system depends on the quality and permanence of the offset projects.  Questions are increasingly asked about the effectiveness of many of the activities in question, as, for example, cutting down native, mature trees and paying to plant saplings is unlikely to derive any carbon benefits in the short to medium term.  Here are some issues that the strategy will need to address in order to achieve any net zero benefits:

  1. Effectiveness: For carbon offsetting to be truly effective, the projects must result in real, quantifiable, and additional carbon reductions that would not have occurred otherwise. Projects must also be sustainable over the long term to ensure that the benefits are not reversed, for example, by the subsequent destruction of reforested areas.
  2. Verification: Robust verification processes are critical to ensure that carbon offsets deliver their intended benefits. This includes regular monitoring and third-party verification against established standards. Without stringent oversight, there is a risk that offsetting can provide a guise of progress without real change.
  3. Equity Concerns: There are also important considerations regarding the social and ecological impacts of offset projects, particularly in developing countries. Projects need to be designed in a way that respects local environmental conditions and community rights, avoiding scenarios where local populations are disenfranchised or where projects lead to unintended environmental consequences.  A typical example of this is tree planting, which if done wrong can actually create MORE emissions.  There needs to be careful attention to detail, proper studies and quantifiable evidence that projects provide more than a token gesture.

Criticisms and Challenges

Critics argue that focusing on net zero and carbon offsetting can distract from any real solutions to climate issues – and there are issues of trust, not least a concern that offsetting can be used by companies and individuals as a “license to pollute,” allowing them to buy their way out of meaningful emissions reductions through offsets that may be dubious or ineffective.

The skepticism about net zero and carbon offsetting being mis-used is not without basis – several high-profile cases have shown offsets failing to deliver promised carbon savings, raising very real concerns that offsetting may not produce tangible long-term sustainable benefits. Here are some notable examples:

  1. The Sinar Mas Case (Indonesia) – In the late 2000s, Greenpeace reported that Sinar Mas, a major Indonesian palm oil conglomerate, was involved in deforestation practices despite participating in a United Nations program aimed at reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD). This raised questions about the additionality and integrity of forest-based carbon credits, where the supposed carbon savings were negated by ongoing deforestation activities.
  2. The Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) Issues – Several projects under the CDM, which was established under the Kyoto Protocol to allow emission-reduction projects in developing countries to earn carbon credits, have been criticized for lack of additionality. This means that some projects that received funding and generated carbon credits would have proceeded regardless of the support from carbon financing, thus not providing real or additional climate benefits.
  3. The VCS Amazon REDD Project – This project was intended to protect parts of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil from deforestation but faced criticism over its effectiveness and impact. Reports suggested that deforestation rates did not significantly decline in project areas, casting doubt on the project’s effectiveness and the validity of its carbon credits.
  4. California’s Offset Program with Forests in Alaska – Critiques of California’s carbon offset program have focused on projects like those involving forest management practices in Alaska. Critics argue that these projects did not effectively enhance carbon storage or prevent emissions beyond what would have occurred without the project, raising concerns about their real environmental benefits.
  5. The Katingan Peatland Restoration and Conservation Project (Indonesia) – While this project has been celebrated for its scale and potential impact, it has also faced scrutiny regarding its actual effectiveness in peatland protection and the complexity of measuring and verifying carbon sequestered through such initiatives.

These cases illustrate the challenges and complexities involved in ensuring that carbon offsetting delivers real, additional, and sustainable climate benefits. They underscore the importance of rigorous standards, transparent monitoring, and robust verification processes in carbon offset markets.  It certainly isn’t likely to fill the ‘man on the Clapham Common Omnibus’ with the desire to get out and walk in the rain when the system everyone is advocating inspires so little trust.

Moving Forward

Despite concerns, and these examples where there has been no tangible environmental benefit,  the net zero approach to mitigating climate change remains widely supported in the climate science community, particularly by major climate research bodies and intergovernmental panels.

Several key reports and organizations favour this approach due to its alignment with the goal of limiting global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius, ideally to 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels. Here are some of the most significant research outputs and bodies advocating for the net zero approach:

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – The IPCC’s Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C explicitly supports the net zero target. It states that achieving net zero CO2 emissions by around 2050 is crucial to keep warming under 1.5 degrees. The report emphasizes that this will require unprecedented transitions in all aspects of society, including energy, land use, urban and infrastructure, and industrial systems.

International Energy Agency (IEA) – The IEA has published various reports and roadmaps detailing how different sectors can transition towards net zero emissions by 2050. Their comprehensive 2021 report, “Net Zero by 2050: A Roadmap for the Global Energy Sector,” outlines a pathway for the energy sector that involves massive deployment of renewable energy, increased energy efficiency, and the development of technologies like carbon capture and storage.

United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) – UNEP’s Emissions Gap Reports repeatedly emphasize the necessity of reaching net zero emissions to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. These reports analyze the gap between anticipated emission levels and levels necessary to achieve the 1.5°C target, advocating for increased ambition and action towards net zero.

The Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) – This joint initiative by CDP, the United Nations Global Compact, World Resources Institute (WRI), and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) helps companies set emission reduction targets in line with climate science. The initiative supports net zero targets that are consistent with keeping warming to 1.5°C.

Global Carbon Project – This project produces scientific data and analyses on global carbon emissions and their implications for emission reduction strategies. Their research supports the need for net zero emissions as a component of a global strategy to limit carbon accumulation in the atmosphere.

These bodies and reports highlight the critical consensus among climate scientists and researchers that achieving net zero emissions is essential to mitigating the worst effects of climate change. They provide a mix of qualitative assessments and quantitative data to support strategies aimed at reducing global greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by mid-century.

Real Science – but Net Zero is not a Silver Bullet

It would appear that respected researchers agree that achieving net zero is a useful mitigation strategy, but they collectively acknowledge that it is not a silver bullet.

Net Zero cannot be used as a sticking plaster while maintaining ‘business as usual’ and must be part of a multifaceted approach that delivers rapid reductions in emissions, innovations in technology, and socio-economic transformations. Transparency, rigorous standards, and international cooperation will be essential in ensuring that carbon offsetting contributes effectively to the global goal of net zero.

In conclusion, while net zero appears to be a scientifically endorsed target, achieving it in practice will require more than just carbon offsetting and if it is to be effective at all, the scheme cannot be treated by the rich and powerful as a ‘pay to pollute’.

Achieving a better carbon balance demands a profound transformation of how we produce and consume, and the ‘blame’ for carbon emissions needs to be placed at the feet of those with the real power to deliver change – not simply by pointing the finger at consumers who in reality have very little power.  While ‘every little helps’, with respect it’s time the public were not taking the blame for years of corporate greed at the expense of the environment – and with good reason, many remain sceptical.  People are unlikely to buy into anything without seeing corporates deliver on their side first.  With so much greenwashing, lecturing and tokenism, trust is getting ever thinner and the constant bombardment with the ‘climate emergency’ message from the mass media is wearing thin – many ordinary people still question whether climate change is even real, despite the research.

Getting buy-in from the public

If scientists are correct and we are in the depths of a real climate emergency, there are very real reasons for concern.

It is only with a comprehensive and integrated approach that the world can meet climate goals and mitigate the impacts of climate change.  And without trust in the people who are in charge of delivering it, it is unlikely to happen.  If climate scientists are to be believed, failure is not an option.  So what options do we have?

London Fire Brigade stats on fires caused by scooters and e-bikes are terrifying, revealed in this article– if you are remotely considering getting one, I’d encourage you to have a read.

With stats like that, I won’t consider buying an e-bike or scooter.  Added to that, while e-cars are significantly safer than the e-bikes or scooters, there are lots of scarce resources used to produce EVs and with the shipping of everything from across the globe, it leaves a massive carbon footprint.  They do mean owners can avoid paying the congestion tolls which are being introduced in many UK cities, but it’s not exactly green.

Losing the profit and vested interests for a minute, if the climate issue is as critical as they say, it’s time for Governments and Corporates to urgently lead by example rather than by words. Since 1988, just 100 companies have been responsible for 71% of global greenhouse gas emissions. In addition to this, only 25 corporations and state-owned organisations were found to be responsible for over 50% of the global industrial emissions2 during the same time period.  Who is tackling this?

The media are spouting ‘climate emergency’ on an almost daily basis but nobody is listening – and that’s no surprise.

Before telling the public to get out and walk in the rain, Governments need to scrap the private jets, ministerial cars and endless jollies and introduce legislation to rein in unnecessary space travel – right now it seems to be a free for all.  Putting it bluntly, one billionaire space selfie uses 50-75 tonnes of CO2 per passenger.

Then there’s the international meetings, popping to Dubai or Switzerland for your exclusive little meetings, ironically to talk about climate change.  Your average single long haul flight, for you to attend one international meeting uses 1-3 tonnes of carbon each way – that’s equivalent to me driving a whopping 10,000 miles per year.   Tell me again why my car is the problem?

I don’t drive anywhere near that much, and I like driving, so skip the lectures please.  When you have sold your private jet, reduced your long haul flights, and hold your international meetings over Zoom instead of travelling in person, maybe you will get my attention.

Yes, every sustainable journey will help with carbon reduction, but it somewhat takes the proverbial to tell me to drive my car less or turn off my heating before tackling the corporate emissions responsible for 70% of the issue.

We all share the same planet and yes, we can all do our bit, but like many others like me, I’m not the issue and I resent being told to change my lifestyle while my emissions represent so little of the issue.

Maybe when we see real leadership, and action on tackling the big emitters, then, and only then, will the public will have the trust to get on board with net zero.  Right now, nobody is listening – least of all the businesses and nations responsible for the bulk of the emissions.