Crew Commentary

“Net Zero by 2050” is Greenwashing

Bob Leonard - Climate Risk Manager


by Bob Leonard


A common sign that complex systems are approaching tipping points is rising volatility. Our climate system is enormously complex, global in size, and interconnected with all facets of our biosphere. The extreme weather in 2021 – the heat domes, droughts, fires, floods and cyclones – is deeply concerning. If Earth systems tip as a result of global heating, there will be little difference between taking inadequate action and taking no action at all. A miss is as good as a mile.


But a miss is exactly what politicians around the world (especially in the wealthier countries) are enabling. Fearing electoral consequences, many politicians now shy away from carbon taxes and other market-based strategies. They have adopted “net zero by 2050” as their de facto climate goal. I believe this is a “distract and delay” tactic – one that allows them to appear to be addressing the issue when they are, in fact, just kicking the can down the road. 


Sam Mooy/Getty Images


If we look under the hood of “net zero by 2050” we quickly find consequential issues:


  1. 2050 is too late – way too late. In the meantime, CO2 and other greenhouse gases will continue to accumulate in the atmosphere adding more and more heat. We are already experiencing catastrophic weather events. If you watch the weather world-wide (as I do), every day there is a significant event somewhere. And this is at 1.2 degrees C of warming. By 2050, without drastic measures being taken, we could be at 2 degrees C of warming or more. Imagine the volatility then.
  2. “Net Zero” represents magical thinking. It presupposes that a technology will be invented that can drawdown the CO2 and reverse the warming. Some people say we should just plant more trees. That can be helpful, but it will have limited effect. I live in the Pacific Northwest. I have personally experienced heat domes and wild fires. Many millions of trees planted as carbon offsets have died from extreme heat, drought or fire. When those trees die, they release their CO2 into the atmosphere. We should continue to plant trees, but know that it is a one step forward, one step back holding pattern that doesn’t solve the problem.
  3. State of the art technology exists that does drawdown CO2 from the atmosphere and sequester it safely. There was significant media coverage recently about a Direct Air Capture (DAC) facility opening in Iceland. The problem is one of scale. This facility will remove up to 4,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere each year. Last year, we collectively emitted 31 billion metric tons of CO2. To absorb that much, we need to build and install 8 million of these devices. There’s a metric called Return on CO2 (ROCO). How much CO2 would be emitted in mining the metals for 8 million devices, transporting the minerals to the manufacturing plants, building the devices, transporting them to where they will be located (all over the world) and installing them? I’m being a bit disingenuous here. The technology curve will reduce the costs and increase the efficiency of these devices over time, but the scale required will only increase if we don’t discontinue the emissions at the source. While our atmosphere will continue to warm over that same time period.
  4. Probably the most problematic issue brings us back to politics. It is who is supporting Net Zero by 2050. It is supported by fossil fuel executives. It’s a ruse designed to distract and delay so the industry can continue to extract, refine and sell fossil fuels. They promise to reduce their direct carbon emissions (those related to production, transport and other areas of operations) to zero over the next 30 years. They take no responsibility for the carbon released when their product is burned in internal combustion engines, steel mills, electricity generation plants, etc. This is what is known as “green washing”… and it should be classified as a crime against humanity.


I am not a Doomer. I believe we can still avoid leaving a hellscape for our children and grandchildren to deal with. I just don’t want you to believe that Net Zero by 2050 means that meaningful action is being taken to reduce emissions. Hold the oil industry and the politicians to account.


As mentioned above, climate touches everything. No matter who you are – whatever your interests, skills and talents are, there are ways you can do your part. Become a crew member on Spaceship Earth and do what you can. Remain vigilant, skeptical and take appropriate action.