Report: “Net zero 2050”: A dangerous illusion

Breakthrough National Centre for Climate Restoration “Net zero by 2050”
                                           Credit: National Centre for Climate Restoration

Net zero targets are very ambitious and require some of the world’s largest companies to radically and quickly change their basic culture and company profile. It would be imprudent to assume that they are going to make the necessary commitments or achieve the targets that they have set for themselves. Caution is called for. 

In this article we look at a report published in July 2021 by the National Centre of Climate Restoration. The title of the report is, “Net zero 2050”: A dangerous illusion.

This report is not objective. It is strongly opposed to the ‘Net Zero by 2050’ programs adopted by many companies. However, in spite of its harsh tone, the report does make some points that need to be considered.

Lack of Urgency

The report maintains that some companies have adopted a philosophy of “Burn now, pay later”. It is claimed that the programs that the companies have adopted actually allow them to continue in the fossil fuel business for the next decade or so. During that period of time they plan to build up their carbon removal programs, even though the technology behind these programs is still only in the demonstration stage.

The report’s authors do not accept that we have the luxury of time — urgent action is needed now.

What we do in the next 3-4 years, I believe, will determine the future of humanity.

former UK Chief Scientist Sir David King

Long-term targets are an excuse for procrastination. The short-term matters most. Emergency action to cool and protect the most vulnerable climate and ecosystems is vital. Failure to do so right now may make long-term targets irrelevant if cascades of system-level biophysical changes are triggered.

Too Much Credit for CO2 Removal

The report believes that too much credit is given for CO2 removal, either through biological means or by direct air capture. (This criticism relates to the above point about lack of urgency.)

Poor Risk Management

The report makes an important point to do with risk.

NZ2050 scenarios are based on models and carbon budgets generally associated with a 50 or 66% chance of staying below the target, that is, a one-in-two, or one-in-three, chance of failure, for example in the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report and the 2018 Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C. We would never accept those risks of failures in our own lives. Why accept them for impacts which may destroy civilisation as we know it.

Climate change is an existential risk to human civilisation that . . . requires special precautions beyond conventional risk management practice if the increased likelihood of “fat tail” (high end) risks are to be adequately dealt with. The IPCC carbon budgets do not do this.

In other words, even if the risk of catastrophe (failure of civilization) is on the low side, we still need to prepare for such an event because we cannot return from it  were it to take place. In our normal lives we may choose to assess the amount of money we pay for house insurance, for instance. If the house burns down, we can always build another one. Such is not the case with climate change catastrophe. We cannot rebuild the planet’s climate.

Need Net Minus

If we are to save the planet from a climate catastrophe the report suggests that “net zero” is not enough. We need, in fact, to adopt “net minus” targets, i.e., to start reducing the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere immediately with a level of effort analogous to what was carried out in World War II. How a “net minus” target in such a short time period can actually be achieved is not a question that is addressed. (For example, the effort required to convert industry to all renewables would require an immense expenditure of fossil fuel energy, with its associated emissions. It would also likely lead to economic collapse since the size of an economy correlates closely with CO2 emissions.)

Conclusion

Although the report is harsh and one-sided, it does make some important points. Prudent risk management means that these points should be considered as net zero programs are being developed and implemented.