Net Zero Is Not Zero

Rio de Janeiro/Berlin – It may seem as if the world is finally taking the climate crisis seriously, judging by the number of pledges to reach “net-zero emissions.” Among the major emitters, both the United States and the European Union have promised to achieve this goal by 2050, while China intends to become carbon-neutral before 2060. Even oil giants Shell and BP plan to reach net-zero emissions by mid-century.

Large tech corporations appear more ambitious still. Amazon has committed to reaching net-zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2040. Microsoft has pledged to be “carbon negative” by 2030, and by 2050 it aims to have removed from the air all the CO2 the firm has emitted since it was founded in 1975. Google claims to have been carbon neutral since 2007, and aims to be “carbon free” by 2030. In fact, net-zero pledges have come from all parts of the economy, including the meat and dairy industry, aviation, mining, finance, and retail.

But these seemingly ambitious goals in fact amount to yet another round of greenwashing and dangerous distractions that will delay and prevent the adoption of real climate solutions. That is because net zero is not really zero.

For starters, 2050 is almost three decades away. Making long-term net-zero pledges enables governments and businesses to avoid drastic emissions cuts now. From a climate-justice perspective in particular, mid-century is way too late. Wealthy, industrialized countries in the Global North, due to their historical emissions and current levels of wealth, have a responsibility to decarbonize much faster.

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