Net Zero Emissions: Climate Change Panacea or are We Being Greenwashed?

This article was originally written earlier this year for Carbon8 as part of their National Regenerative Agriculture Day series on “What the eff is net zero”. It was one of many drafts that was pushed back by the editors (read the published article, “The Race to Zero”), not because it wasn’t good enough, but because they wanted readers to consider net zero through an entirely new and different lens.

There was a whole pile of research that went into this and, although it’s based on the Morrison Government, the concepts are still applicable to the Albanese Government, or any government for that matter. The Albanese Government’s Climate Change Bill 2022 passed in the House of Representatives in early August 2022. The Bill outlines an emissions reduction target of 43 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030 and, net zero emissions by 2050. Let’s unpack a few key concepts around net zero to understand what it means for the future.

As corporations and governments around the world at local, state and federal levels commit to zero emission targets – including Australia – we’re compelled to ask, what do these targets mean? Are they a panacea to the climate crisis or just a load of greenwashing?

Let’s crack open this debate with some quick definitions.

What is Greenwashing?

Greenwashing is when a government or company uses misleading claims about a product, service, policy or in this case – a target – to have us believe it is sustainable or “green”. It derives from the term whitewashing, which is an attempt to stop people finding out about the true facts of a situation. 

What is Net Zero Emissions?

Meanwhile, net zero emissions – the environmental buzz word of the 2020’s – refers to the point at which greenhouse gases (GHG) being released into the atmosphere are in balance with those being removed from the atmosphere. This crazy planet we call home – up until recently – has been sitting in a beautiful equilibrium that enables all of the plant and animal species to thrive. Tip those scales in either direction and the consequences could be catastrophic for all of us.

The reason so many organisations and policy makers are pledging to reach net zero emissions is to give us a fighting chance of limiting global average temperature increase to 1.5°C in alignment with the Paris Agreement and COP26. These targets have been pushed further into our consciousness based heavily upon recommendations from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 6th assessment report, which declared a code red for humanity, requiring we make deep emissions cuts this decade to avoid climate catastrophe.

Has the Federal Government made a good net zero emissions plan or are we being greenwashed?

According to the Climate Council, who have based their advice on the guide developed by the UNFCCC, there are some key questions we should be asking when trying to answer this question to flush out any greenwashing. Here we take a closer look at the Australian Government’s Long Term Emissions Reduction Plan (The Plan) which was released in October 2021:

Is the target timely?

The majority of our emissions reductions need to occur this decade, therefore any net zero target beyond 2030 needs to have done the bulk of the heaving lifting within the next eight years. In other words, governments and corporations need to act hard and fast.

Scrutinise the time frame of the net zero target. Is it beyond 2050? What are the interim targets? Is there a target to reduce emissions by 50% or more by 2030 or earlier?

The Morrison Government has finally – after being publicly ridiculed on a global scale – committed to a net zero emissions target by 2050 and a 35% reduction by 2030. As stressed previously – the lion’s share of emissions reductions needs to occur this decade, 35% is well below the 75% recommended by The Climate Council and well below that of what the ACT, NSW, Victoria and South Australia have committed to achieving. It’s not nearly hard, nor fast enough.

Is there a realistic plan in place to achieve net zero?

As the old adage goes, fail to plan and you plan to fail.

A net zero emissions plan needs to encompass medium to long term actions that actually reduce greenhouse gas emissions and not rely on offsetting or technology to meet the net zero mark. This would include ceasing fossil fuel extraction and the commissioning of any new fossil fuel projects Effective immediately. Relying on offsetting and drawdown techniques should only be used for the bare minimum of remaining emissions that cannot be ceased – we’re talking less than 10%.

In a recent media release, Minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction, Angus Taylor, quoted an evaluation by the International Energy Agency that “shows… half the global reductions required to achieve net zero will come from technologies that are not yet ready for commercial deployment”. It’s as if we are being led into the net zero emissions trap described in the previous section with the Prime Minister and the Minister responsible for emissions reduction wholeheartedly believing we can “technology“ our way out of this mess. No amount of offsetting will be enough to cover the continued use of fossil fuels beyond 2030.  Furthermore, it’s hard to believe the Morrison Government is serious about their net zero target when they’ve committed to a gas-led energy future for Australia. A net zero target that incorporates the commissioning of any form of fossil fuel energy into the mix will completely undermine a net zero target.

Lastly, based on the current policies under the Morrison Government’s own modelling, we won’t reach net zero until closer to 2100 and only be reducing our emissions by around 50% by 2050. These are just a handful of examples pulled from The Plan – I’m sure we’d have no trouble finding more.

Is the plan transparent?

A good policy by any company or government will enable the public access to data detailing the progress of the actions and target. These should be reported on regularly – given the short time frame we’ve been told to act we would want to be seeing annual reporting at the very least.  

In The Plan the Government continues to claim to have slashed Australia’s emissions by 20% since 2005, even though this has been proven to be mere smoke and mirrors and the truth looks more like a 7% increase in emissions in that time. This claim completely discounts the enormous amount of fossil fuels we export, which combined with our own emissions accounts for around 3.6% global emissions. 

The Climate Council describes the Australian Liberal-National Coalition government’s tactic to addressing climate change in the last decade as being characterised by “slashing climate science funding, cutting effective climate change programs, rejecting the expert advice of national and international bodies, senior ministers making publicly misleading claims, a lack of credible climate policy, and consistently covering up poor performance”.

Based on past performance, one would be forgiven for assuming a level of opaqueness to the strategy now and moving into the future.

Will it be enough?

Does the target cover all greenhouse gases across all sectors? When it comes to climate change, we’re inclined to think in terms of carbon dioxide however, we need to look at the full range of GHGs released due to human activity such as methane and nitrous oxide and how to minimise those too.

The Plan refers to the need to minimise and abate other greenhouse gases including methane via technology and carbon capture and storage – you can read more about the unethical practice of CCS in our previous article “What the Bleep is Net Zero?”.

The trap with net zero emissions

The trap with net zero is some companies and policy makers believe they can continue to spill greenhouse gases into the atmosphere as long as they engage enough carbon dioxide removal (CDR) or greenhouse gas removal (GGR) techniques or technologies. However, this kind of thinking – one tonne of greenhouse gas into the atmosphere equates one tonne of greenhouse gas out – is unfortunately grossly incorrect.

Duncan McLaren, a professor at the Lancaster Environment Centre at Lancaster University in the UK explains, “when removals by biological techniques… are used to offset emissions from fossil fuels, there is a multiple mismatch of timescales. It takes years – even decades – for these biological techniques to start removing and storing carbon in meaningful quantities”.

Likewise, founder-member of Indian environmental group Kalpavriksh and former Greenpeace board member, Ashish Kothari, explains how the “net zero approach contains a series of fundamental, dangerous flaws… firstly, a mindset that equates pollution emitted or forest cut in one place to pollution absorbed or afforestation done elsewhere, is ecologically and socially ignorant (or wilfully negligent) “.

Kothari argues this way of thinking comes from a “flawed view that the climate crisis is only about carbon and that a forest is only a collection of trees, a grassland a collection of grass, a wetland a body of water with fish in it”.

The ‘one in, one out’ view overlooks the intricate complexities of how our natural ecosystems function, which cannot be recreated by human mechanisms and utterly underestimates the timescale at which ecosystems store carbon.

This is akin to setting a new year’s resolution of losing 10 kilos by drinking a green smoothie every morning and continuing to eat processed, fried and sugar laden food, whist sitting for 14 hours a day… it’s not going to happen!

The Verdict?

Analysis by the Climate Council shows that Australia should be cutting its emissions 21 times faster than we are to play our part in avoiding the catastrophic consequences of worsening climate change. Given the answer to at least 3 of the 4 questions posed above received a hard no, then I’d wager on us being greenwashed by the Federal Government on their net zero climate target and long term emissions reduction plan. 

The Morrison Government tends to build on their greenwashing campaign via cheesy advertising and aretaloger behaviours that distract us from our poor climate targets. By pointing out how little Australia contributes to overall global greenhouse gas emissions (1.3%) and instead pointing the finger at other nations with higher overall emissions but equally as poor targets such as China – who per capita is significantly lower than Australia. We’re led to believe we’re a small player in the carbon game (when in fact per capita we are one or the worst performers). 

Can we achieve zero emissions?

This is a complicated and somewhat loaded question, but it is important to address so that you’re not left feeling a climate positive future is futile.

The Climate Council states, If we act fast then we will see the benefits of our emissions reduction within about two decades. This is backed by the IPPC’s report; however, it must be stressed – we need to go hard and fast with our emissions reductions including ceasing all coal and gas energy projects, utilising renewable energy options and removing the excess GHGs with drawdown technologies and practices. 

In 2010, Beyond Zero Emissions (BZE) released the first roadmap for how Australia can repower our electricity sector with clean renewable energy which  shows – with rigorous, peer-reviewed research – that powering Australia with clean renewable energy is technically feasible and affordable, will improve reliability and can be completed within a decade.”

As with many policies and targets, perhaps the only way to ensure a net zero target is the real deal and not greenwashing propaganda is to engage a nonpartisan third party organisation that certifies companies or governments with science-based net zero targets with plausible strategy. 

The takeaway?

Don’t be fooled by glossy headlines and empty promises, demand a clear and credible pathway towards a net zero target where our end goal should be carbon negative, climate positive. Look at governments and organisations that are making drastic emissions cuts before 2030. Vote for the leaders that take us on that journey, vote with your wallet by engaging with companies that walk the talk.

Further reading

Menstrual Audit 2.0

On average, a woman will use 12,000 disposable pads and tampons in her lifetime, with the end destination being landfill. Once in landfill, they could take as long as 500-800 years to decompose. A few years ago I wrote about my Menstrual Audit and the Diva Cup, which was all about my conversion from tampons…

Renewable Energy: A Very Short Introduction – Nick Jelly (2020)

I listened to this as an audio book on Borrow Box and found it to be a great refresher on renewable energy concepts I learned in university. I also picked up on a few new interesting ideas and theories. Jelly covers the main renewables including: wind, solar, hydropower, biomass, tidal, geothermal and wave. Jelly analyses…


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