‘Net zero’ has been all over the headlines and is even championed by many environmentalists. So you’d think it was a good thing, right? It should mean that the leopards are changing their spots – the polluters are starting to clean up their act.
Unfortunately, far from signifying climate ambition, the phrase “net zero” is being used by a majority of polluting governments and corporations to evade responsibility, shift burdens, disguise climate inaction, and in some cases even to scale up fossil fuel extraction, burning and emissions. The term is used to greenwash business-as-usual or even business-more-than-usual. At the core of these pledges are small and distant targets that require no action for decades, and promises of technologies that are unlikely ever to work at scale, and which are likely to cause huge harm if they come to pass.
A new technical briefing from climate justice groups – available in 4 languages – explores the story behind the headlines, examining some of the assumptions and claims that are taken at face value in most ‘net zero’ announcements. It examines the IPCC emissions reductions pathways that do not rely on unproven technologies such as Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) and shows how the premise of offsetting upon which ‘net zero’ rests is unjust and unsustainable. Finally, the briefing offers a framework for a fair approach to global climate action and lists many examples of practical solutions that could be immediately implemented to really bring emissions down.
Download the joint technical briefing by ActionAid, Corporate Accountability, Friends of the Earth International, Global Campaign to Demand Climate Justice, Third World Network, and What Next?
Since the early years of the UN climate talks, governments responsible for needing to make the deepest emissions cuts have repeatedly attempted to divert this responsibility. They have done so in several faulty and flawed ways: by creating and advocating for “market mechanisms” to trade units of carbon, by incorporating carbon capture technologies into emissions reductions plans, and by advocating for “techno-fixes” including dangerous and untested geoengineering technologies.
Offsetting emissions through market mechanisms is the antithesis to a true climate response from the global community, and from industrialized countries in particular. The science is clear: keeping warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius will require strong emissions cuts, beginning in the developed world, which needs to achieve actual zero emissions as soon as possible. Mechanisms that rely on offsetting delay meaningful action and don’t address the fundamental gap between the 1.5 degree target and countries’ weak progress in emissions reductions.
Furthermore, these mechanisms are rife with loopholes and often allow polluters to increase their emissions and profit from participating in such schemes, all while claiming the false banner of climate leadership. More recently, so called ‘Nature Based Solutions’ have formed the battleground in the fight to extend the concept of commodification of carbon to all ecosystems, with soil carbon, biodiversity and other values being measured and commodified.
What is a carbon market?
A carbon market is a scheme that views atmospheric space in “units”. These units are essentially the right to pollute for a price. The assumption of a carbon market is that if polluters are made to pay per unit of emissions, they will be incentivised to invest in alternatives or pollute less. Yet the opposite has proven true.
For industries and countries with more wealth, carbon markets simply allow them to continue with business as usual while outsourcing their emissions elsewhere. The established market mechanisms, such as the Clean Development Mechanism (below) are riddled with loopholes and have actually resulted in an increase in emissions.
Repeating the same mistakes
The 1997 Kyoto Protocol established the so-called Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), a highly controversial, contested scheme which eventually proved to be ineffective in meeting the targets of the Kyoto Protocol.
The intention of the CDM was to help developed countries meet their emissions reductions targets under the Protocol through the purchase of emissions reductions credits, but the actual result was that some businesses made a lot of money selling “credits” to entities who wanted to pollute more but not have said pollution on their books. The CDM was also widely criticised for harming local people and violating human rights, especially the rights of Indigenous Peoples, as well as failing to actually cut emissions.
For years afterwards, international negotiations on markets usually ended in no agreement between countries, although of course some countries did set up their own domestic markets which they hoped would one day allow for international trading.
Countries that are strongly in favour of market approaches include the European Union, Japan, New Zealand, Australia, Norway and the US, while countries including Venezuela and Bolivia have strongly resisted such offsetting mechanisms. It is not clear how the recent turmoil will affect Bolivia or whether its “transitional” government will do a u-turn or simply remain silent.
After a frenzied two weeks of negotiations in 2015, Article 6 of the Paris Agreement ended up allowing countries to “choose to pursue voluntary cooperation in the implementation of their nationally-determined contributions (NDCs) to allow for higher ambition in their mitigation and adaptation actions and to promote sustainable development and environmental integrity,” and to engage “on a voluntary basis in cooperative approaches that involve the use of internationally transferred mitigation outcomes (ITMOs)” which can count towards their NDCs so long as they promote sustainable development, avoid double counting and ensure environmental integrity.
Thus the door was opened to conflate carbon trading and offsetting with “cooperative approaches” to tackling climate change. The reference to “ITMOs” has also opened the door for the establishment of an international carbon market – contentious given the years of debate on this matter never arriving at an agreement, and laden with pitfalls and risks.
The ITMOs also pose the difficult question of whether a country can use such international transfers for anything other than fulfilling its Paris pledge. Can they, for example, be used in the global offsetting scheme under the International Civil Aviation Organisation, known as ‘Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation’ (CORSIA), which is not under the UNFCCC and which could potentially rely on 2.6 billion tonnes of ‘credits’ from supposedly avoided deforestation.
Rather than focus on more meaningful, equitable methods of cooperation like technology sharing, capacity building, and finance, Article 6 decided that a “Sustainable Development Mechanism” should be set up. Like the CDM before it, this new market mechanism, if it is established, is likely to fail in delivering emissions reductions targets outlined in countries’ National Determined Contributions under the Paris Agreement.
COP25 and the fate of Article 6
Last year at COP24 in Katowice, the section of the “Paris rulebook” dealing with Article 6 was not agreed and became a major sticking point. The talks nearly collapsed in spectacular fashion as Brazil wanted the certified emission reduction credits (CERs) it had obtained under the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism to be counted towards its pledge under the Paris Agreement, and refused to accept rules to prevent double-counting. Eventually the formal conclusion was that no agreement could be reached. The same thing happened at the next round of talks in Bonn this June.
The scene is therefore set for a pressurised round of talks in Madrid, as COP25 is the deadline to conclude this last remaining section of the Paris rulebook. Agreement will be difficult as double counting remains an unresolved issue and wealthy countries such as Australia continue to insist on double-counting their Kyoto credits towards their Paris commitments.
Carbon Market Watch estimates that there are some 20 billion units under the Kyoto mechanisms that could potentially be transferred into the Paris mechanism, rendering the Agreement’s 1.5 degree C goal impossible to achieve. But it gets worse.
[s]ome countries’ Nationally Determined Contributions under the Paris Agreement have low targets which will be easy to over achieve. This means that these countries could potentially create between 18.7 and 28.3 GtCO2e worth of credits – or ‘hot air ’- that they can sell without reducing a single tonne of greenhouse gas emissions.
Market fundamentalists will want to leave Madrid with detailed technical guidelines to allow them to forge ahead with international carbon markets. Many others, notably those who do not stand to profit financially from these market mechanisms, will want only general guidance to try and ensure that if, or when, international markets are established they are regulated and do not threaten human rights or environmental integrity as they have under Kyoto.
Guidance, such as that offered by Carbon Market Watch below, can be quite simple:
Only emission reductions that take place after 2020 can be used towards the NDCs
Countries that over achieve their targets because they were set below business-as-usual emission levels in the first place should not be allowed to transfer these hot air credits to other countries that have adopted more stringent targets
Countries with hot air in their current NDCs should not be allowed to transfer it to subsequent NDC periods to meet future targets
Emissions should not be compensated through the use of excessively old credits, representing emissions which took place a decade or more earlier
With everything else in the Paris rulebook “package” having been wrapped up, it’s hard to see what exactly the horse trading will be but we can be sure of some.
The only way to reach real zero emissions as quickly as possible is to reject these dangerous distractions outright, and simultaneously for developed countries to embrace meaningful, real solutions to achieve the deep emissions cuts they are responsible for, while unconditionally financing the same in developing countries. There is an abundance of real, feasible, cost effective action across all sectors that can be implemented here and now, many of which will have immediate effect.
These include things like but not limited to investing in infrastructure of electrified, mass public transit, with free or heavily subsidized fares; rapidly transforming industrial agriculture towards agroecological practices through proper incentives and policies combined with removal of perverse subsidies, and phase out artificial fertilizers; embracing community governed forest conservation; planning for and transforming energy systems away from centralized corporate-controlled fossil fuels and other harmful technologies to clean, safe systems that empower people and communities.
Article 6.8 of the Paris Agreement provides an opportunity to address the real drivers of emissions by advancing policies and practices via voluntary cooperation among countries that can help deliver deep emissions cuts while advancing equity, environmental protection, and wellbeing. A work programme on how to enhance linkages and create synergy between inter alia, mitigation, adaptation, finance, technology transfer and capacity-building and how to facilitate the implementation and coordination of non-market approaches is under discussion at COP25.
Click here to learn more about what carbon markets are and how they work
Click here to learn more about how carbon markets are a threat to people and planet
Click here to learn more about what real international solutions to the crisis look like
Click here to learn more about the nitty gritty of Article 6 negotiations
Another major issue at this round of talks was actually a hangover from COP24 in Katowice. The shorthand is “Article 6” – referring to Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, which deals with international cooperation between countries to result in an overall decrease in emissions. Mainly this has focused on controversial trading of “offsets”.
Market mechanisms have long been a bone of contention in the climate talks, going back at least 2 decades to the Kyoto Protocol negotiations. Back then, a so-called Clean Development Mechanism was set up with the intention to help developed countries meet their emissions reductions targets under the Protocol through the purchase of emissions reductions credits.
However the actual result was that some people made rather a lot of money selling these “credits” to people who wanted to pollute more but not have said pollution “on their books”, while very little progress was made to actually cut emissions. Concerns around the actual function of the scheme expressed themselves in terms like “efficiency”, “additionality”, “carbon leakage”, and the simpler “human rights violations”.
For years afterwards, negotiations attempted to establish global carbon markets, voluntary trading schemes and so forth. As opposition to carbon markets is a core tenet of climate justice, many groups did not even engage or follow this process, which usually ended in no agreement between countries, although of course some countries did set up their own domestic markets which they hoped would one day allow for international emissions trading.
In the process of negotiating Paris, market mechanisms did not feature. They suddenly appeared towards the end in Article 6, which established a “Sustainable Development Mechanism.”
Now we have to reckon with the reality. There are markets whether we like it or not. We can oppose them while also attempting to reduce the harm they cause.
In Katowice, the section of the “rulebook” dealing with these was not agreed and became a major sticking point. The talks nearly collapsed in spectacular fashion, and eventually the formal conclusion taken was that there was no agreement.
The scene was thus set for a pressurised round of talks in Bonn, as the deadline they set to conclude this last remaining section of the Paris rulebook was December 2019, at COP25.
They had a lot of ground to cover, as the starting point wasn’t even agreed.
Nor was the way forward.
But absent from the debate was any real answer to some important questions, like does this market approach actually reduce emissions? Does it help vulnerable people? Do transfers of credits actually even benefit the seller country? Are forests and biodiversity going to be traded away? Are we going to hold the rest of the talks to ransom for this?
The most they were able to agree upon was to forward the decision-making to SB51 in Santiago, setting the scene for an even more pressurised negotiation.
As per TWN’s reporting, “on the last day of negotiations, three separate set of draft conclusions on each of the three items under Article 6 (i.e. on the international transfer of mitigation outcomes [ITMOs] under Article 6.2; the sustainable development mechanism under Article 6.4 and the framework for non-market approaches under Article 6.8) were proposed for consideration by the SBSTA Chair Paul Watkinson (France) .“
“Each of the draft conclusions contained three paragraphs: the first para recognised the work carried out at the Bonn session; the second stated that there is agreement to continue consideration of the draft decision text (to advance further negotiations on the matter) at the next session of the SBSTA in Dec. 2019 (with the decision text referenced in a footnote) and the third para provided a placeholder for intersessional work (i.e. for a technical paper and workshop) within brackets, due to different views of Parties on the matter.“
“Following these extensive interventions, the SBSTA Chair Watkinson after hearing “divergent views” on intersessional work said that there was “no consensus” and therefore suggested that the draft conclusions ‘do not include intersessional work'”.
“He also said that draft decision texts “do not represent a consensus among Parties,” and assured Parties that there would be no further iteration of the texts (prior to the meeting in Chile). He also clarified that the only editing that would be taken into account are such as “brackets are correctly inserted” and ‘accurate representation of inputs of Parties'”.
We should be talking about real solutions. Instead all the attention and effort is on what we know are false ones.
Even Leo DiCap is pushing the dangerous distractions.