Is the net zero approach to climate mitigation working, or is it an unrealistic framework that does more to help corporations than the planet?
Professor Holly Jean Buck of the University at Buffalo in Buffalo, New York comes onto the podcast to discuss her new book, 'Ending Fossil Fuels: Why Net Zero is Not Enough' with ELCI Assistant Editor Bertie Harrison-Broninski.
You can order the book here from Verso, or read Bertie's review of it here.
Find more podcasts and articles at www.elc-insight.org
Hello, and welcome to the Economy, Land and Climate Insight podcast. My name is Bertie Harrison-Broninski, I'm the assistant editor here at ELCI, and today I'm going to be talking to Holly Jean Buck, Assistant Professor in the Department of Environment and Sustainability at the University at Buffalo in Buffalo, New York. We're going to be chatting about her new book, 'Ending FossilFuels:
Why Net Zero Is Not Enough', recently published by Verso. If you enjoy the podcast, be sure to check out our other content online at www.ELC-insight.org. We're hoping to get a written review of the book out soon in good time too.Holly:
We need to add both a discussion about phasing out fossil fuels, and really centre that. And that would be a critical compliment to the whole net zero discourse. And finally, we need to talk about what it'll take to reach true zero, which I think is really doable by the end of the century.Bertie Harrison-Broninski:
I began by asking Holly to explain what exactly the net zero framework is.Holly:
So net zero essentially means that whatever amount of leftover or residual emissions that society hasn't managed to get rid of - those positive emissions are cancelled out by so called negative emissions or carbon removals. And so there's a bunch of ways to remove carbon from the atmosphere, it can be stored in ecosystems, you know, planting new forests, farming in different ways that puts carbon back into the soil. It can also be removed through industrial techniques, like machines that take carbon directly out of ambient air then it needs to be transported and injected into rock formations underground. The idea of net zero implies that we will develop some of those approaches for removing carbon, and that will compensate for whatever emissions are leftover.Bertie Harrison-Broninski:
And how has net zero become the mainstream dominant climate mitigation strategy that the world is using?Holly:
That's a great question. And, you know, I've tried to trace the history a bit, and that's in the book, but it's relatively recent. It's I think, based on the fact that scientists couldn't make these models work for getting to these temperature targets that were laid out in the Paris Agreement, the 1.5 degrees celsius target specifically, without assuming some amount of overshoot, or some amount of carbon removal. Net zero was a way to keep in line with that and still find a pathway forward for this 1.5 degree target. So the whole net zero discourse really emerged more broadly after the Paris Agreement in 2015, and has been growing ever since.Bertie Harrison-Broninski:
And just picking up on that, I wondered if you could explain a little bit about what overshoot is in climate contexts and what the discourse is around overshoot.Holly:
So overshoot is this idea that the world could overshoot this 1.5 degree target, go up to 1.8, 1.9. And then carbon could be removed that would lower greenhouse gas concentrations, and eventually lower temperatures. And this is something that happens over decades, if not centuries. It's a very long process. But this is just something that started showing up in these model simulations of how to get to 1.5, eventually or near the end of the century. And it's a troublesome idea because the world you're at after this overshoot is going to be different than the world you might be at if you had just full decarbonised, you know, because there's impacts on ecosystems, particularly sensitive ecosystems like coral reefs, that start to kick in. So if you go up to 1.9, 2 degrees, those ecosystems are going to have different impacts. There'll be more ice melt, these sorts of things. So if people are curious on that, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change wrote a special report in 2018 that was all about this 1.5 degree target and it looked at the implications of this in greater detail.Bertie Harrison-Broninski:
And I know 'why net zero is not enough' is the title of your whole book so I wouldn't ask you to cover all of that in one answer. But what are your issues with the net zero framework and give us a sense of why net zero is not enough?Holly:
Yeah, there's two main issues with it. One is that there's a lot of different potential futures within net zero. So there could be a net zero world in which there's 10 billion tons of emissions and 10 billion tons of removals, and that would be net zero, but it would still involve a significant role for the fossil fuel industry. It might still have air pollution impacts from all the combustion of the fossil fuels, and it would have this massive infrastructure larger than the existing fossil fuel industry, all those pipelines, facilities, injection wells for putting carbon back underground. That's a version of net zero. You could also imagine a version of net zero that only has 1 billion tons of CO2 emissions leftover, which I mean, still sounds like a lot. But given that we're at, you know, 40ish billion tonnes, it would be a tremendous feat to get there. And that would be a different sort of thing, it would have a greatly diminished role, if any, for the fossil fuel industry. Most of those emissions would probably be from agriculture, those are some of the hardest ones to eliminate. And that would be a much more modest infrastructure that's more realistic for removing carbon. But net zero as it is, you know, it doesn't differentiate between those different futures. And it also doesn't have any limits for these leftover emissions, it doesn't make a statement on you know, how big the continuing emissions will be. So that's one of the problems with net zero. The other problem is that it's a framework that focuses on what happens after the point of combustion of these fossil fuels, it's totally focused on emissions, doesn't talk at all about production. That's kind of a loophole, because we know that to make these temperature targets to meet our climate goals, we have to leave a lot of carbon underground, you know, a 1.5 degree pathway would have a decrease of fossil fuel production by 6% every year over this decade. That's very different than the trajectory we're headed on, we know that it has to stay underground. And if you're just focusing on emissions, and you're not putting energy into that as well, you're missing some of the most important parts of this whole puzzleBertie Harrison-Broninski:
There is a section I enjoyed towards the start of your book, where you make four arguments for fossil fuel phase out that focus less on carbon accounting or emissions, the first one being to do with public health and climate justice, the second one to do with suffocating innovation. The third one is the idea of fossil phase out as an insurance policy against other climate strategies not working. And then lastly, you talk about rebalancing power and eliminating corruption as well. I wondered if you could just briefly run through those arguments, I think our audience might be interested to hear them.Holly:
I mean, the first and foremost, I think the public health arguments are really clear, we have a lot of really good science about that. There was a study that came out that indicated that in 2018, one in five of all deaths that year could be traced to air pollution impacts from fossil fuels, it's really a massive toll, particularly on the most vulnerable people. So that's, you know, first and foremost case for ending the use of these fuels. But I also think that fossil fuels have a record of suffocating innovation and new technologies. The more we continue with them, there's an opportunity cost to not develop things that are better. And then also the insurance argument, that came from some other researchers that have been looking at this, it's like, okay, well, if this net zero, or whatever other approach doesn't work, you know, at least this would be a backup, it would be guaranteed to work. The corruption and oppression part, I mean, this is tricky to write about, but fossil fuels have a track record of, I'm not going to simplify and just say the resource curse, but you know, they command high rents. A lot of authoritarian leaders have used those fossil fuel rents to keep themselves in power and oppress people in many different places. And they also have had a role in conflict. Again, it's not inevitable. But if you look at history, I mean, you can see these patterns. And I think it's likely that other forms of energy would have different relationships to power, authoritarianism, and so on. So not to simplify that, but that's something we need to be thinking about. Finally, I would also add that an unplanned phase out risks destabilizing the financial system, which would have a lot of impacts for a lot of people. And so there's even more arguments we could come up with to phase out fossil fuels. But those are some of the ones that are in the book.Bertie Harrison-Broninski:
Picking up on that. Something you touched on throughout the book is this idea of the fossil fuel industry, not just in terms of them as emitters, but in terms of their influence and reach over the climate sector more generally, whether it's the same people and companies being involved in low carbon fossil fuels, renewables, CCS, research, even policy, how do we disentangle the fossil fuel industry from the broader climate sector?Holly:
This depends, I think a bit on your theory of change. And so I'll offer a few thoughts on that. I mean, how do you transform this industry into something else? Because unfortunately, we don't have a magic wand that makes it all go away. So in the book I argue that, you know, we should be buying out, taking over this sector with - the public should - governments should nationalise fossil fuel assets, fossil fuel companies, and then would we be in a better place to direct the transformation, which is still really challenging because you can imagine that a new government comes to power, they want to keep producing fossil fuels, then, you know, you're screwed. But I do think that transforming the industry could happen best through government control of it. You could also imagine a theory of change that says, okay, we'll have activist investors on the board, or we'll have, you know, the markets put pressure on them to change. And that's happening to a small extent. But then what we get is this prospect of decarbonised fossil fuels where, since the problem is defined in terms of emissions, they just say, okay, we're producing these fuels, but they have a lower carbon intensity. Maybe they're even carbon neutral fossil fuels, which I know sounds like an oxymoron. And I think a lot of climate advocates have just totally dismissed this possibility, because it just sounds too ridiculous. Yet, I mean, this is a real move that they're starting to make, is offering these new products that are considered decarbonised to satisfy those investors.Bertie Harrison-Broninski:
I wonder if we could just zoom in on that phrase, decarbonised fossil fuels? Are you talking about getting emissions from fossil fuels to zero or just reducing them? And would we do that through carbon capture and storage or some other means? I know that CCS is a fairly contentious topic in climate circles, some people think it's absolutely vital, and we should be investing a lot more into it. Others point to many kind of hiccups that big projects have had in the past, the fact that even the 90 to 95% capture rates that the industry has been aiming for rarely have happened so far. I think there's a bit of the beginning of your book where you kind of rhetorically ask about CCS, can it actually be done? Or is this purely a fantasy to make people feel better about continued extraction? What's your answer to that? I mean, can it actually be done? Should it be?Holly:
Yeah, so I should have said, I mean, what they're really working for first is lower carbon fossil fuels. And so there's a lot of ways to get to that, they could detect all their methane leaks and capture methane, this is like such a no brainer, they should be forced to do it by law. But then they say, you know, we've decarbonised the carbon associated with this fuel by like 40%, or whatever. And that's a valid claim, because they cleaned up their mess like they should have been doing. And then they get credit for it, I guess. They could also decarbonise the transport of the fuels, electrify the refining, use carbon capture and storage in the refining. So like there's a bunch of places along the chain that they could do to lower the carbon intensity of a fuel. Now for it to be all the way at zero or even negative, then that would be for example, coupling carbon capture and storage with enhanced oil recovery. And without getting too technical, that implies injecting CO2 into a depleted well to produce more oil, but the CO2 stays there. And theoretically, if the lifecycle analysis worked out, maybe that would be carbon neutral, or carbon negative, which is, I think it's distinct from carbon capture and storage. People should know that that's a process that we're going to need, for example, to decarbonise cement, it has industrial applications. It's not just about fossil fuels. Is that a fantasy? I don't think it is. But it's not necessarily going to happen at scale under this current business model, this current economic system, it requires subsidies from the government to be cost effective, it will require regulations on these companies to force them to install this equipment, which they should be doing. So if that'll happen? I mean, depends how optimistic you are about the politics, I think it would be a good thing to do. Like we shouldn't just have cement plants or steel plants that are polluting, we should be capturing that pollution.Bertie Harrison-Broninski:
I wanted to ask you about this point you make in the book about the professionalisation and technocratism of the climate sector. You talk about how climate professionals, generally speaking, come from a certain type of background, and as a result, certain assumptions, political assumptions, economic assumptions, are built into climate strategies, and also certain ideas about what's actually feasible and possible. So two questions. Firstly, what should climate professionals who want to be cognisant of this try and do differently? And secondly, how do we bring other communities, other voices into the process to try and change this dynamic?Holly:
At the risk of being simplistic, I think that they should just get out and talk to people in a bunch of different places, you know, one on one. So if you're working on any of these climate issues, go to a rural area, go to an environmental justice community, have some conversations with people, I wish that these organisations that employ people were supporting and incentivising their employees to do it, it would be a much, much better world with different conversations in it I think. Because too often, you know, you'll make a plan on a map of what things should look like. And you don't really have a clue what the people in those places think about these technologies. And this isn't just about, you know, carbon removal, or whatever we've been talking about. It's really about renewables too, and how we're going to build all these new transmission lines and solar and wind at scale. We have to include communities in that not just in the decision making, but thinking about how the benefits actually flow to those places, because otherwise they're not going to want to host that infrastructure. So there's a lot of work to be done around community engagement and dialogue that the government actually should be funding as well if they want to see any of this happen.Bertie Harrison-Broninski:
Our thanks to Holly Jean Buck for coming on the podcast. 'Ending Fossil Fuels: Why Net Zero Is Not Enough' is out now from Verso. If you enjoyed this podcast, be sure to listen to old episodes and read our articles online at www.elc-insight.org. Please also subscribe to this podcast on your favourite platform. We'll have more interesting interviews with climate experts very soon. Thanks for listening!