The concept of net-zero emissions has become widely adopted in recent years, with private corporations, national governments, and international accords establishing emissions reduction targets and strategies with the promise to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and achieve ‘net-zero’. Net-zero refers to accomplishing an overall balance between emissions produced and emissions removed from the atmosphere. On the surface, reaching net-zero seems straightforward: only release as many emissions as can be stored or removed from the atmosphere by reducing current emissions and increasing the amount of GHGs removed from the atmosphere.
The issue with net-zero however is the Net, with equal weighting given to carbon removal and storage post-emission as emissions reductions at the point of discharge, lessening the importance of preventing emissions in the first place.
Net-zero assumes that carbon is the same whether stored within fossil fuels pre-combustion or in the atmosphere, oceans or stored organically post-combustion, establishing the notion that as long as GHGs are captured or removed from the atmosphere, their production can continue. Though fewer GHGs in the atmosphere is clearly a positive, targets to reach net-zero lessen the significance of reducing fossil fuel consumption and sources of emissions in the first place.
Methods for achieving net-zero via offsetting also present a problem. Net-zero schemes assume there are no limits to how much one’s emissions can be compensated with carbon removal elsewhere, however, there are physical limits as to how much carbon can be captured and the pace that carbon can be absorbed, which under current rates of emissions and with the continued loss of natural carbon stores is simply not enough storage capacity to match current emissions and reduction targets.
Carbon offsetting also shifts the burden of responsibility in dealing with emissions away from those responsible for their release to others elsewhere, usually at a lower cost to the emitter than directly reducing their own emissions, serving as a form of modern-day indulgence to pay for the sin of emitting without actually dealing with the cause of their sins.
Net-zero initiatives and targets are a step in the right direction in terms of trying to reduce our emissions and increasing the stock of carbon sinks, however, a shift away from net reductions and an emphasis on actual reductions are needed if we are to achieve significant and realistic reductions in carbon emissions and atmospheric concentrations to avoid climatic catastrophe.