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Our playbook guide to deceptive fossil fuel practices: part three

When it comes to the insidious techniques that the industry is using to undermine climate negotiations and delay progress, there are many. Here, we discuss the changeable, intangible nature of net zero targets, and the futility of offsetting carbon emissions.

We’re inevitably going to hear grandiose fossil fuel busting pledges before the summit is out, but how many (if any) will make an actual difference?

Sitting through hours of delegate speeches for the 28th time, we’re ultimately concerned with two major details: How are fossil fuels going to be phased out, and how are the heaviest polluting nations working towards net zero targets – i.e. removing their anthropogenic carbon emissions.

Nonetheless, with the first deadline for the Paris Agreement in tow, and the IPCC warning it’s now or never to remain under 1.5C of global warming, governments and corporations continue to show more interest in creating deceptive mechanics than taking genuine action.

If you haven’t been keeping up with our playbook guide series, check out the previous part on ‘greenwashing’ and ‘individualising systemic problems.’

In this edition, we’re delving into the intangible nature of net zero targets and the futility of carbon emission offsets. Let’s get on with it… unlike the powers that be.


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Is net zero just a pipe dream?

As previously mentioned, peaking carbon emissions is the ultimate end goal and the only way to truly halt climate change. That prospect, however, is nowhere in sight.

Despite a growing coalition of 140 plus countries, 9,000 companies, and 600 major financial institutions apparently joining the race to zero emissions, our current global footprint needs to be reduced by 45% by 2030 or we’ve failed to remain under 1.5C.

How can both of these statements simultaneously be true?

Given that national economies alone account for roughly 91% of global GHG emissions, it doesn’t take a world class detective to ascertain that governments, quite plainly, aren’t following through with their pledges.

The path to reaching net zero is dotted with Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), which encourage countries to achieve short-term goals to ensure long-term success.

The problem is that just 12 of 35 net zero policies are legally binding, meaning financial prosperity takes precedence over ecological prosperity and nobody bats an eyelid.

NDCs are confused, chopped, and changed regularly to kick the can down the road, and significant mitigation agreements are too scarce to really matter. Just last September, G20 leaders failed to agree on a timeline to phase out fossil fuels rendering the meet largely pointless.

Despite posturing as a ‘green leader,’ the UK has pushed its net zero target back from 2030 to 2035, China is slating its supposed transition for 2060, and India is aiming for 2070 as a baseline – a whopping 20 years too late, by all accounts.

Global corporations, meanwhile, are throwing their hat in the ring to lap up the positive PR without actually following through on eco pledges. Greenwashing is everywhere!

Commercial giants such as Amazon, Ikea, Nestle, and Walmart are falling catastrophically short of their net zero targets, while oil companies are relying on untested technology and enhanced oil recovery (EOR) projects, which only prolongs the life of fossil fuels and halts any holistic transition to renewable energy.

Quite frankly, if you want brownie points… bake the damn brownie.

Evidence suggests carbon offsets are not fit for purpose

While convoluted legalities thwart any realistic chance of reaching net zero internationally, many corporations resistant to change fill their green quotas through something called carbon offsetting.

As the name suggests, this means a company will aim to avert the damage it causes to the climate by investing in an ecologically conscious project. For example, a paper company that chops down 5,000 trees a year would invest in planting 5,000 new trees at reforestation sites.

This ‘free pass’ method relies on the assumption that the emissions produced are proportional to the volume being removed. In the vast majority of cases, however, offsetting projects grossly overestimate their impact.

In-fact, a recent investigation into Verra, the world’s largest offset certifier, revealed that 90% of carbon credits it sold to companies had no ecological upside whatsoever. Some of those investing heavily in these ‘phantom credits’ wrongly believed their business or products to be carbon neutral.

This is one of hundreds of cases where the carbon credit system has come under fire, and the lack of standardised regulation is leading activists to believe that the system isn’t fit for purpose.

Many of the companies literally passing the buck are completely unaware of how projects function on a granular basis, and that can also lead to problems of an ethical nature.

Human rights abuses have been highlighted several times in the last year, including coercive labour involving China’s Uyghur community at the Bachu Carbon Project, and allegations of sexual abuse offences at a conservation scheme in southern Kenya.

The clientele of these projects included BP, Spotify, Netflix, and Shell, among others.

Overall, the voluntary market for carbon offsets is expected to soar to $50bn by 2030 and that is a clear indication that the corporate world has no appetite for holistic change.

Cash the cheque and plead ignorance. It’s foolproof.

How does this relate to COP28?

In case you’d forgotten, COP28 is being hosted by the United Arab Emirates – a region which is rapidly expanding its oil empire, and whose presidential delegate has rubbished the science behind phasing out fossil fuels and bringing global temperatures down.

Leading by example clearly isn’t Sultan Al Jaber’s forte, as the sole premise of the conference is to find a consensus for phasing out fossil fuels. As of yet, there have been no green shoots.

On the contrary, just one of the 24 brands associated with the event has signed up for the Science Based Targets Initiative, and no corporate sponsor – including the Bank of America, Baker Hughs, and IMB – has yet committed to net zero. Sigh.

On the note of carbon credits, the World Bank has revealed plans to help 15 developing countries in Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America earn money from carbon credits by 2028.

A spokesperson vaguely assured that its scheme would be of ‘high integrity’ despite the unforeseen problems of the past. Comforting…

Lastly, the UAE is on the cusp of pushing its flagship enterprise which will only make fossil fuel transition plans even more pie in the sky.

The nation is convinced that ‘blue ammonia’ is the key to unlocking the vast potential of hydrogen, thereby ushering in a new era of green energy. The reality, however, is that the inorganic gas – used to safely store hydrogen – is reportedly thrice as ecologically damaging to make as diesel and natural gas.

You can fully expect the hosts of COP28 to peddle the ‘solution’ relentlessly over the coming days and weeks. As for a global acceleration of net zero plans, get your head out of the clouds already.

For the previous part of this ongoing series, click here.