Net zero targets are fossil fuel greenwashing

Friends of Earth International (FoEI) published a report revealing the greenwashing of net zero emissions of the fossil fuel industries. In this piece, Kim Hill writes about the problems with the concept of economic growth that the report does not acknowledge.

Originally published at Medium.

Featured image: Headline on World Coal Association website, March 2017


By Kim Hill

A recent report from Friends of the Earth International (FoEI) unpacks the greenwashing of fossil fuels in the term ‘net zero emissions’. Net zero is a scheme for expanding the oil and gas industry, that does nothing to address the causes of climate change, and indeed exacerbates ecological collapse.

This is how FoEI describes net zero targets: “‘Greenwashing’ hardly suffices as a term to describe these efforts to obscure continued growth in fossil emissions — ‘ecocide’ and ‘genocide’ more accurately capture the impacts the world will face.”

FoEI joins the many environmental activists and groups campaigning against net-zero, in defence of the ecosystems, indigenous peoples, peasants and third-world communities that are being harmed by fossil fuel expansion and offset trading.

The climate movement has adopted net zero emissions as its core demand, and continues to mobilise many thousands of people around the world to join protests in support of this goal. By endorsing the fossil fuel companies’ campaigns for net-zero pledges and targets, rather than taking the side of environmental groups organising against it, the climate movement and Extinction Rebellion are complicit in genocide and ecocide. While individual climate activists may have other motives, the movement as a whole is controlled by corporate interests, and has been co-opted into marketing the goals of its funders.

While climate activists have been inspired by the celebrity status of Greta Thunberg in coalescing around the net zero target, Greta herself has said in recent months “we must forget about net zero” and calls these schemes “empty words, loopholes and greenwash.”

Just a few of the many headlines to be found via a web search of the term net zero emissions.

Two recent articles in The Guardian also expose the net zero spin. One titled Global oil companies have committed to net zero emissions. It’s a sham. says “many companies and countries are using “net zero” to justify expanding the production of fossil fuels…All that the major oil companies have done (with tacit support from many governments) is shift their public narrative about the climate crisis from denial to delusion. They’re no longer insisting there’s no problem, because they lost that argument. “Net zero” is their attempt to continue business as usual without addressing what they’re doing to people and the planet.”

A second article, The climate crisis can’t be solved by carbon accounting tricks, states “Net zero increasingly involves highly questionable carbon accounting. As a result, the new politics swirling around net zero targets is rapidly becoming a confusing and dangerous mix of pragmatism, self-delusion and weapons-grade greenwash.”
The FoEI report, titled Chasing Carbon Unicorns, opens with: “Powerful actors, particularly those most responsible for emissions, such as the fossil fuel industry and agribusiness, continue to obscure the need for the phase-out of fossil fuels and greenhouse gas emissions with the distractions and seductions of the carbon market. “Net zero” pledges are a new addition to the strategy basket of these actors who are fighting hard to maintain the status quo. And the status quo will certainly worsen the climate catastrophe.”

A few more excerpts:

“These deliberate corporate strategies distract attention from the undeniable and urgent need to eliminate fossil fuel emissions…”

“‘Net zero’ is a smokescreen, a conveniently invented concept that is both dangerous and problematic…” (p4)

“engineered “negative emissions” technologies, such as bioenergy carbon capture and storage(BECCS) or direct air carbon capture and storage (DACCS), are untested.” (p8)

“There are no saviour ecosystems around the planet, nor fairy godmother technologies, that will suck up continued fossil fuel emissions.” (p8)

at best there are no overall emission reductions from an offset” (p11, emphasis in original)

“financial interests are not giving up on the profit-making opportunities they see in markets for carbon and for financial assets, such as securities and derivatives, based on carbon.” (p13)

“There are no surprises among the members of the TSCVM [Taskforce on Scaling Voluntary Carbon Markets]. BP, Shell, and Total represent the oil majors; Bunge, Nestlé, and Unilever are there for agribusiness; Boeing, easyJet, and Etihad, the aviation sector. Bank and finance industry members include Bank of America, BlackRock, BNP Paribas, Goldman Sachs, Itaú Unibanco, and Standard Chartered…Major big green conservation organisations are also engaged in the effort to rehabilitate offsetting and help to dramatically increase the supply of “nature-based” offset credits. Four organisations sit on the consultative group of the TSVCM: Conservation International (CI), Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), The Nature Conservancy (TNC), and World Wildlife Fund (WWF). All four are prominent advocates for “nature-based” solutions / offsets. All four have active projects in the developing world that are set to generate carbon-offset credits, sometimes including direct alliances with fossil fuel majors.” (p15)

“Government “net zero” targets also obscure fossil emissions and the responsibility for reducing those emissions, as do the “net zero” pledges of the private sector.” (p16)

The report ends with no realistic plan of action, but instead lists vague demands comprising meaningless buzzwords, and calls for “real zero”, a target cooked up in an equally murky shade of greenwash. At no point does FoE acknowledge the reality that infinite economic growth will rapidly destroy all life on Earth, regardless of how the economic system is powered. It takes no account of the physical impossibility of powering a globalised growth economy without continued extraction of fossil fuels, nor the enormous expansion of mining and land-grabbing required to manufacture wind turbines and solar panels at scale. The necessity of scaling back and localising economic activity, and prioritising the needs of people and nature over corporate profits, is never mentioned. Despite sincere efforts to expose the distractions marketed by corporate actors, FoE reveals its own reliance on corporate funding as a serious limit on what it can achieve.

A movement that can genuinely bring down the fossil fuel industry and stop the destruction of nature needs to extract itself from corporate funding, and be completely independent of business interests. It needs to abandon the tactic of making nebulous demands that can be twisted around by governments and corporations to promote ecocidal economic growth. Merely marching in the streets, and expecting governments and corporations to represent the interests of the people, is a failed tactic. Activists will need to be strategic, and take personal responsibility for organising the direct dismantling of fossil fuel infrastructure. The movement must take an eco-centric rather than business-centric view, and unite around the goal of permanently shutting down all extractive and destructive industries, and regenerating damaged landscapes and communities.

2 thoughts on “Net zero targets are fossil fuel greenwashing”

  1. Almost everything that pretends to be “green” regarding global warming/climate change is greenwashing. See the documentary Planet of the Humans, for example. The only real solutions to this and all other environmental problems are to greatly lower our population, and live a lot more simply and naturally in order to consume a lot less. All else is rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic at best.

    As we should all have all learned as children, if something seems to be too good to be true, it is. There is no having your cake and eating it too by continuing gross human overpopulation & consuming far too much by living unnaturally with technology, while still not harming the environment. Humans need to grow up and stop this childish fantasy that they can maintain their overpopulation and destructive lifestyles while not destroying anything.

  2. The fundamental misunderstanding inherent to civilization is our failure to recognize something as basic as the impossibility of putting two gallons of water into a one-gallon container.

    Earth has a fixed size. It doesn’t get any bigger, and any “ism” that presumes to “grow” here is insane. We cannot produce more wealth or materials per year from a planet than we can from an acre of land. And presuming to do so is like trying to drive faster every day on a one-lane dirt road.

    Industrial humans are alone among the millions of species on Earth in not recognizing this. And yet we claim to be the planet’s only “intelligent” life form. By not understanding the built-in limits of things, we prove that we are, in fact, Earth’s one truly stupid species. We might as well appoint the only mentally retarded passenger to pilot the plane we’re on.

    Have you noticed how my analogies here (human units of measure, industrial production, driving, and flying) are all unnatural, industrial contrivances? We are so far removed from nature that even our symbols and reference points are unnatural — which, by definition, are not just beyond nature, but are hostile and destructive to it.

    We of the industrial mindset are like a madman running loose with an automatic weapon (another human invention analogy). We can’t even think on a natural level. We have no right to be here, no right to exist. We industrials are an invasive species. And we can either grow up and solve the systemic problem we have created, or we will exterminate ourselves. The only question of importance is how many innocent species we will take down with us.

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