Letter from a Reader

Net Zero Carbon Emissions:
A Beginner's Guide to an Imperialist Fraud

| revcom.us



I have closely followed and learned from the coverage by revcom.us of global warming—both the science behind it and how the system of capitalism-imperialism has brought us to this crisis. I recommend the video from The RNL—Revolution, Nothing Less!—Show on the climate crisis to learn the basics. Here I want to address a scheme getting a lot of attention that masquerades as a solution to global warming—but which actually perpetuates fossil-fuel use. The buzz-phrase is zero net emissions.

Joe Biden has loudly proclaimed that America's energy goal is “achieving net zero greenhouse emissions by 2050.” John Kerry, Biden's so-called “environmental envoy,” has met with world leaders declaring that “we need to get the U.S. and the entire world on a path towards net zero.” Many people, including in the environmental movement, see this as a real step forward. It is not!

I've written this letter as a beginner’s guide to why “net zero” is part of the problem, not the solution to global warming.

Segment on the environment from
The RNL—Revolution, Nothing Less!—Show:

What does net zero mean? 

The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased steadily over the last 60 years, and continues to increase despite 34 major climate conferences and a half dozen international agreements. (Click to enlarge.)

The United Nations says: “Put simply, net zero means we are not adding new emissions to the atmosphere. Emissions will continue, but will be balanced by absorbing an equivalent amount from the atmosphere.” Net zero is described as getting to a place where carbon dioxide emissions have been greatly reduced but not eliminated—and the carbon that continues to be pumped into the atmosphere is supposedly countered by carbon being taken out of the air.

So “net zero” means that the amount of carbon dioxide going into the air equals what is taken out. Think of it like a bathtub. The faucet is turned on and water goes into the tub (carbon emissions are pouring into the atmosphere). At the same time, the drain is partially open and water is going out (carbon is being removed from the atmosphere). “Net zero” in our bathtub example is when what is going in is balanced by what is going out, so the water level in the tub does not change.

Just to be clear, it is NOT enough to keep the “water level” the same. So that's problem number one with “net zero”: the amount of carbon in the atmosphere is not being radically reduced, and that will have very bad consequences for the environment.

Problem number two with net zero is that it stipulates that it is OK to keep putting carbon into the atmosphere ... provided there is a pledge or promised plan to take carbon out of the atmosphere in the future. This is gross deception.

Back to the bathtub analogy. It is as if you continue to put a lot of water into the tub, and not much comes out the drain. But then you say, “Oh yeah, we know this might overflow, but we are working on net zero—we will slow the flow and drain this water out sometime in the future.” In other words, we can put off taking sweeping and drastic action now to limit carbon emissions as long as we pledge (make empty pledges) to do so down the road. Which is exactly the stance of the capitalist-imperialists.

How is net zero supposed to be achieved?

There are two legs to most net zero plans.

A) The first leg of net zero plans to reduce carbon emissions involves things like generating electricity without burning fossil fuels—through solar, wind, and hydroelectric power; and other measures like replacing gas-burning engines in cars with electric cars.

Let's look at the actual trajectory of things. In 1990, coal and natural gas (these are carbon-emitting fuels) accounted for 65 percent of the electricity mix of the U.S. In the 30 years since, the cost of producing solar and wind power has come down dramatically, and more solar and wind power are being used to generate electricity. But in 2020, coal and natural gas accounted for 60 percent of the U.S. electricity mix—just 5 percent less than in 1990.

In other words, more solar and wind power are being added to the power system of the U.S., but this is only a thin layer on top of a massive foundation of fossil fuels. Indeed, something else happened in the past 30 years: the U.S. became, and has remained, the world's largest oil and natural gas producer.

Despite the honeyed phrases from Biden and company about moving away from fossil fuels—THIS is the actual “path” the U.S. is on. And according to International Energy Agency forecasts, U.S. carbon emissions will rise (under Biden) by seven percent this year—while the planet as a whole will see the second-largest increase in carbon emissions in history. On why fossil fuels are so built in to the profitable functioning of capitalism-imperialism, see “50 Years Since Earth Day 1: Reflections on the Catastrophe That Is Capitalism-Imperialism,” by Raymond Lotta.

B) The second leg of net zero involves schemes for taking carbon out of the air through technology to capture carbon after it is in the atmosphere and to inject it into the ground.

Now technology to take carbon out of the air does exist. But this technology is very undeveloped and largely unproven. Indeed, many scientists say it is highly doubtful that such technology can be developed and applied soon enough to have a significant effect on the current and growing levels of carbon in the atmosphere.

One widely promoted scheme for carbon removal is called Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage. First, build giant tree plantations (trees absorb carbon from the air and store it in their trunks and branches); then cut the trees down; then burn the wood to produce energy; then capture the carbon dioxide emitted from the burn and store it deep underground. But, as just mentioned, the technology to do the “capturing” of the carbon is dubious at best.

And the whole process requires enormous quantities of water on a planet increasingly threatened by drought. This scheme would take up so much land that it would cut into food production and hurt the biodiversity of the planet. Globally, the amount of land that would be needed to build things like tree plantations to suck all of the continued emissions from the global capitalist-imperialist world economy is enormous. One calculation by Friends of the Earth International is that it would take twice the land area of India just to build plantations to take five percent of the carbon currently emitted into the air!

To go back to our bath tub analogy, it is as if part of the “drain” they are promising does not yet exist, and the part that does exist destroys the bathtub.

Architects of Net Zero Say They Were Wrong

Three prominent climate scientists who had helped to develop net zero, and had championed and popularized it, used the occasion of Earth Day 2021 to publicly and forthrightly criticize themselves. They issued an urgent wake-up call that net zero is part of the problem not the solution, getting into why it is wrong and what led them to support it. See their paper, “Climate scientists: concept of net zero is a dangerous trap.”

“We have arrived at the painful realization that the idea of net zero has licensed a recklessly cavalier ‘burn now, pay later’ approach which has seen carbon emissions continue to soar.”

“Over the years doubt has developed into dread. This gnawing sense that we have made a terrible mistake. There are now times when I freely admit to a sense of panic. How did we get this so wrong? What are our children supposed to think about how we have acted?” 

—James Dyke, Senior Lecturer in Global Systems, University of Exeter (one of the authors of the paper)

Dead mussels cover the beach at Lighthouse Park in West Vancouver: The unprecedented heat wave in the Pacific Northwest in the last few weeks killed hundreds of people and scientists estimate a billion fish, mussels and other sea creatures who could not live in the hot ocean water. Scientists say this heat wave was driven by climate change. The mussels in this picture with their shells open are dead. Photo courtesy of Christopher Harley.

Why do the imperialists embrace and promote net zero?

The imperialists embrace and promote net zero because it does not demand an urgent and radical break with the current horrific trajectory human society is on. And it gives the appearance of making changes to deal with the climate crisis while in reality continuing business as usual.

Wildfires in 2018 emitted more than 111 million metric tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, that was equal to two-thirds of emissions from transportation. Here 2020 fires rage in the Amazon Rain Forest. Photo: Twitter

What effect will net zero have on the people and countries of Asia, Africa, and South America—the global South?

First of all, the global South has contributed much less carbon to the atmosphere than the imperialist countries. Yet it is already suffering a much greater burden of the effects of climate change: through rising sea levels harming cities and agricultural lands, droughts, storms like hurricanes, turning formerly fertile land into deserts, and much more. Net zero is an inadequate response to this calamitous situation.

In addition, many of the net zero schemes are actually incredibly destructive to the environment and to human society, especially in the global South. For example, the French energy corporation Total SA is negotiating in Africa to build massive tree plantations on land now occupied by Aka indigenous Pygmies and Bantu farmers who would be thrown off their land.

A powerful cyclone slammed into coastal India and Bangladesh May 20, 2020. Cyclone Amphan made landfall with winds of 120 mph. More than 2 million people were evacuated from their homes in Bangladesh. (Photo: Kazi Salahuddin Razu/NurPhoto via AP)

I hope these points help people understand why “net zero” is a dangerous and harmful deception.



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