Week of 9 August 2021
How can companies’ and governments’ net zero plans actually get us … to net zero?
Our key takeaway: Net zero plans that do anything short of committing to reduce GHG emissions are not worth the (recycled) paper they’re printed on. Plans that rely heavily on carbon removal strategies are both unfeasible and likely to have adverse human rights impacts on smallholder farmers, indigenous peoples, frontline defenders and others.
Oxfam’s latest report, Tightening the Net: Net Zero Climate Targets – Implications for Land and Food Equity, lays down some hard truths for companies and governments attempting to set net zero emissions targets. Some top takeaways from the executive summary are below:
- Net zero targets are a distraction from what needs to be done in the immediate future—to stop putting more carbon into the atmosphere. Oxfam points out that most governments and companies are centring their net zero targets around removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, not on stopping emissions of gases. According to Oxfam, this general trend makes net zero targets “risky because instead of focusing primarily on the hard work of cutting carbon emissions, for example by rapidly ending the use of coal, oil and gas for electricity and oil for cars, they rely instead on using other methods to remove carbon from the atmosphere,” such as technologies that remove carbon from the atmosphere and using land and forests in a way to reabsorb carbon.
- The fly in the ointment? The proposed solutions aren’t really solutions. For one, most of the carbon-removal technologies companies and governments seek to rely on are not yet scalable. The second strategy, preserving and creating “land and natural sinks” (such as forests and soil) to absorb carbon, would require massive amounts of land to have a meaningful impact. For example, Oxfam found that the net zero plans of four of the largest oil and gas producers (Shell, BP, TotalEnergies and Eni) “alone could require an area of land twice the size of the UK. If the oil and gas sector as a whole adopted similar net zero targets, it could end up requiring land that is nearly half the size of the United States, or one-third of the world’s farmland.” And all of this could backfire, creating negative human rights impacts by “fuel[ling] a new surge in demand for land, particularly in low- and middle-income countries, which would lead to mass displacement and hunger.”
- Oxfam suggests at least five ways forward that don’t rely on the current model of net zero commitments. These include: (1) a “much stronger focus” on reducing GHG emissions by 2030, especially by the largest (public and private) emitters; (2) G20 governments prioritise “ambitious climate action” more than ever in advance of COP26 later this year; (3) companies start by cutting scopes 1, 2 and 3 emissions as a first priority—including “phasing out support for new fossil fuel production; (4) targets are made more transparent to distinguish between carbon reduction strategies and carbon removal strategies; and (5) land use to support climate action “ensure[s] zero hunger. Land and nature are important parts of the climate solution, but where we do use land for climate mitigation, it must prioritize food security and build the resilience of small-scale farmers who rely on land” as well as “be subject to strong social and environmental safeguards that ensure that local communities, Indigenous people and frontline defenders have a seat at the table.”
For more, see Oxfam, Tightening the Net: Net Zero Climate Targets – Implications for Land and Food Equity (August 2021)
The executive summary can be found here: Oxfam, Tightening the Net: Net Zero Climate Targets – Implications for Land and Food Equity: Executive Summary (August 2021)