There’s been a reasonable vigorous, but pleasant, debate on Twitter about “net-zero”. It was largely motivated by a Conversation article by James Dyke, Robert Watson, and Wolfgang Knorr called Climate scientists: concept of net zero is a dangerous trap. The basic idea is that framing emission reductions in terms of reaching net-zero has allowed there to be plans that delay actual emission reductions on the basis of us being able to develop and implement negative emission technologies.
To be clear, I agree with the concern than we are using the net-zero framing to delay making actual emission reductions. What I don’t agree with is that this is some trap created by climate scientists. The requirement that we get (net) CO2 emissions to (roughly) zero emerges from the scientific evidence. As Kimberly Nicholas pointed out, this essentially means that we must no longer be adding CO2 to the atmosphere. It doesn’t, though, tell us how we should do so.
The simplest would be to simply stop emitting CO2 into the atmosphere. However, there are some sectors that are challenging to decarbonise, so we might need some kind of negative emission technologies that artificially remove as much CO2 as we emit. If it’s possible to implement these kind of technologies at a large enough scale, then we could also continue emitting CO2 under the assumption that these technologies could then be used to not only eventually balance our emissions, but to also allow us to end up in a position where our emissions are net negative.
This is where the problem comes in. By developing plans that rely on these kind of technologies, we’re not only gambling on these technologies being able to operate at scale, we’re also delaying making the kind of emission reductions that would potentially allow us to meet our targets without relying on these technologies. We can, of course, choose to take this risk, but we should be open about doing so.
So, yes, I do agree with people’s concerns about these types of plans and about the possibility that organisations can make promises about getting to net-zero that they may not be able to keep. However, I don’t think the problem is that scientists are pointing out that the requirement for stabilising global surface temperatures is that we need to get (net) CO2 emissions to ~zero.
In addition, I do think that scientists need to be careful. If people are misinterpreting scientific information, or making decisions that don’t seem consistent with that information, that doesn’t mean scientists should decide to change the information they present. Scientists shouldn’t, IMO, be second-guessing how information might be used and adjusting their messaging to steer things in a way that they regard as optimal.
I also think we should be careful of suggesting that the problem is how scientists have presented their information. Of course, scientists should aim to explain information as clearly as possible, but they’re not responsible for how that information is then used. This isn’t to suggest that we should avoid criticising scientists, but I do think we should be cautious of doing so because we disagree with how others are using the scientific information that is being presented.
Climate scientists: concept of net zero is a dangerous trap – Conversation article by James Dyke, Robert Watson & Wolfgang Knorr.