Corporate net zero goals: solution or deception?

Climate change superstar Mark Carney set off a media flurry in a video interview with Bloomberg Live on February 10, in which he claimed that Brookfield Asset Management is a “net zero” company because its renewables investments offset emissions from its other holdings. Carney reflects a new trend of corporate aspirational statements, for example: Jeff Bezos’ corporate network The Climate Pledge claimed in February that 53 companies across 18 industries have committed to working toward net-zero carbon in their worldwide businesses, most by 2050.  Recent  high profile examples include Royal Dutch Shell , Canada’s TD Bank  and Bank of Montreal, and  FedEx , which on March 5 announced its goal to be carbon-neutral by 2040 as well as an initial investment of $2 billion to start electrifying its delivery fleet and $100 million to fund a new research centre for carbon capture at  Yale University.

Will these corporate goals help to reach the Paris Agreement target?  Many recent articles are skeptical,  labelling them “sham”, “greenwash”, and “deception” which seeks to protect the status quo.  Some examples:

The climate crisis can’t be solved by carbon accounting tricks” (The Guardian, March 3) which offers a concise explanation of why “Disaster looms if big finance is allowed to game the carbon offsetting markets to achieve ‘net zero’ emissions.”

Global oil companies have committed to ‘net zero’ emissions. It’s a sham” by Tzeporah Berman and Nathan Taft (The Guardian, March 3) – which instead advocates for an international Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Call the Fossil Fuel Industry’s Net-Zero Bluff” by Kate Aronoff  in New Republic. She writes: “This isn’t the old denialism oil companies funded decades ago. … Instead of casting doubt on whether the climate is changing, this new messaging strategy casts doubt on the obvious answer to what should be done about it: i.e., rapidly scaling down production….. For now, it’s one part creative accounting and many parts a P.R. strategy of waving around shiny objects like biofuels, hydrogen, and carbon capture and storage.”

Can the market save the planet?  FedEx is the latest brand-name firm to say it’s trying” in the Washington Post , which quotes Yale Professor Paul Sabin, warning that “carbon capture research also should not become an excuse for doubling down on fossil fuel consumption, or delaying urgently needed policies to move away from fossil fuel consumption, including the electrification of transportation.”

Chasing Carbon Unicorns: The Deception of Carbon Markets and Net Zero  – a hard-hitting report by Friends of the Earth International which argues that net zero pledges are “a new addition to the strategy basket of these actors who are fighting hard to maintain the status quo.”   The report names these actors, led by the  financial community’s new Taskforce on Scaling Voluntary Carbon Markets (TSVCM) – established by Mark Carney and the led by the CEO of the Standard Chartered Bank, with a goal to develop standards for “credible offsets” . FOE International also names a
group of Oxford academics which is supporting the TSVCM work by developing the Oxford Principles for Net Zero Aligned Carbon Offsetting , and  conservation agencies which have endorsed the work: Conservation International (CI), Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), The Nature Conservancy (TNC), and World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

Chasing Carbon Unicorns concludes:

“Net zero” is a smokescreen, a conveniently invented concept that is both dangerous and problematic because of how effectively it hides inaction. We have to unpack “net zero” strategies and pledges to see which are real and which are fake. Fake zero strategies rely on offsets, rather than real emission reductions. Real zero strategies require emissions to really go to zero, or as close to zero as possible.”

Federal Advisory Committee on Net Zero policies appointed to augment existing research and recommendations

In late February, the federal government appointed a Net Zero Advisory Committee   with fifteen expert members, including Canadian Labour Congress President Hassan Yussuf and  Climate Action Network-Canada (CAN-Rac) Executive Director Catherine Abreu, as well as  Linda Coady,  Executive Director of the Pembina Institute,  climate scientist Simon Donner from University of British Columbia,  Assembly of First Nations Regional Chief Kluane Adamek, and others from government and  industry.  As explained in  “Canada’s new Net Zero Advisory Body and Bill C-12” (March 4) by the Climate Action Network Canada, this Advisory Committee was a platform promise made by the Liberals during the 2019 election, and is intended to provide ongoing expert advice until 2050 to the Minister of Environment and Climate Change. Its mandate, here, is to provide advice on the next framework for Canada’s climate change policies, as currently before the House of Commons in Bill C-12,  the Canadian Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act.

An article in The Energy Mix emphasizes the independent nature of the advisory body, and the fact that there are no current oil and gas industry representatives included.   However, in “Accountability Bill Lacks ‘Clear Path’ To Net-Zero Targets, Climate Scientist Warns Ottawa”, Catherine Abreu is quoted as saying that despite the Advisory Committee, Canada still lacks clear accountability in climate policy, and that Bill C-12 is  “not the robust piece of legislation we need to make sure Canada never misses another climate target. To make sure it’s set up to drive up ambition, especially in the near term, we need the 2025 goal and a stronger 2030 goal enshrined in law.”

Other policy voices on the Net Zero ambition are found in Canada’s Net Zero Future: Finding our way in the global transition, released on February 8  by the Canadian Institute for Climate Choices , and described by the Institute as “the first in-depth scenario report to explore how Canada can reach net zero emissions by 2050”. It  advocates for two pathways: “safe bets” in the short term, and in the long term, “wild cards” which include negative emission technologies that are not yet commercially available.

On March 11,  the Pembina Institute released  How to Get Net-Zero Right,  which recommends top priority for “early, deep, sustained, and technologically feasible direct emissions reductions in every sector. …..Canada’s pathways must define an appropriate role for carbon removal and offsets. Achieving net-zero will require the use of carbon removal to address hard-to-decarbonize sectors or essential end uses that cannot yet be decarbonized. Carbon removal and offsets, however, cannot be approached as an alternative to mitigation, but rather in addition.”

How to Get Net-Zero Right  is the first of a promised series of reports on the issue by Pembina, and will consider social justice and equity concerns.