Corporations and institutions like TIAA are pledging to achieve carbon neutrality but critics say net zero pledges delay meaningful reductions in greenhouse gases and provide cover to those unwilling to commit. This article was published in the November-December 2021 issue of NewsNotes.
In response to the climate emergency and increasing loss of biodiversity, many countries, corporations, and financial institutions are making pledges of “net zero” carbon emissions. The idea is to reduce carbon emissions in their activities as much as possible and then use “offsets” or carbon saving projects elsewhere, to arrive at a net of zero emissions.
Yet studies have shown that offset projects, that range from tree planting to energy efficiency initiatives and the use of carbon capture technologies, are wracked with problems and allow major emitters to continue polluting while not actually reducing greenhouse gases. In an emblematic campaign, hundreds of civil society organizations are pressuring a major retirement fund, TIAA, to go beyond its net zero pledge.
As explained in a report from major social and environmental organizations on carbon markets and net zero pledges, “offsets do not actually reduce atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2). At best they lead to no net increase in atmospheric concentrations... ‘Net zero’ is a smokescreen, a conveniently invented concept that is both dangerous and problematic because of how effectively it hides inaction.” Net zero allows carbon emissions to continue while supporting projects with questionable reductions in carbon emissions.
It is difficult to measure carbon emissions of industrial processes. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found margins of error of up to 60% in measuring emissions from oil, gas and coal industries and 100% with some agricultural processes. A Tufts University study of websites offering offsets showed that estimated emissions for a flight between Boston and Frankfurt ranged from 1.43 to 4.14 tons of carbon. On the other side of the equation, it is even more difficult to measure the amount of carbon that a parcel of land sequesters. Biomes are complex, with overlapping causes and effects, and the science is constantly being updated based on new information, resulting in new calculations.
Perhaps the fundamental problem with carbon offsets is the concept of “additionality” — GHG reductions that are additional to what would have happened without the offset. For example, a landowner says that they planned to deforest their land but will now maintain the trees and sell off the value of the carbon they sequestered. Yet there is no way to verify what people would have done, leaving this crucial step open to fraud.
A study of the Clean Development Mechanism, the world’s largest carbon market, found that only a fraction of the offset projects were truly additional and there have been cases where businesses deliberately increased their emissions in order to be paid to lower them in an offset project. Investigative journalist Dan Welch sums it up well, "Offsets are an imaginary commodity created by deducting what you hope happens from what you guess would have happened."
Worse than being ineffective and a distraction from real climate solutions, offset projects are often very destructive to indigenous and traditional communities. Tree planting projects in Guatemala, Ecuador and Uganda have evicted thousands of families from their traditional lands, disrupted water supplies, and have not provided promised income to local communities. The Santa Rita hydroelectric dam in Guatemala is an emblematic case. Despite letters from local indigenous communities saying they had not been consulted or given approval to the dam, the CDM board approved the project. Resulting conflicts over the dam have led to the deaths of seven people and many injuries.
Jason Miller, senior editor at Investment Monitor, warns that net zero pledges could also create more environmental problems while trying to address climate change. The transition to clean energy will require copious amounts of minerals, including rare earth minerals with limited availability, and the mining and processing of these minerals require massive amounts of energy and water and destroy habitats. The International Energy Agency predicted that mineral demand for use in electric vehicles and batteries will jump at least 30 times by 2040, marking a “shift from a fuel-intensive to a material-intensive energy system” that will create serious environmental and social problems.
In an effort to draw attention to the failings of “net zero” pledges, hundreds of civil society organizations are pressuring TIAA, the Teachers, Insurance and Annuity Fund, a retirement fund with more than one trillion dollars in investments, to go beyond its recently announced net zero pledge. TIAA is a trend leader in investment circles so if it changes its policies, other investment funds will likely follow.
Faith in action: Sign a petition to tell TIAA to divest from fossil fuels and land grabs https://bit.ly/TIAAdivestpetition