One of the first actions by the Biden-Harris administration was to have the United States rejoin the community of nations in the effort to confront the most significant global challenge faced by humanity, CLIMATE CHANGE.
In line with this critically relevant decision our nation rejoined the Paris Climate Agreement with a commitment to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by a factor of 50% to 52% from 2005 levels, by the year 2030. President Biden called this “..our nationally determined contribution” to the emission reduction target under the Paris Agreement.
In addition during the Global Leaders Climate Summit convened by President Biden on Earth’s Day, 22 April 2021, the United States communicated its intentions to achieve a net-zero economy by the year 2050.
So, what does this all mean? Are we sure as individuals that we understand what we as a nation are committing to? How much will the USA contribute to the reduction of GHG emissions? Does the public understand what it all means? The secret to answering these questions is in the details.
Let us start by looking at the terminology used in the conversation about GHG emissions. Often heard are the terms: zero emissions, net-zero emissions, and net-zero energy, zero carbon, and carbon neutral, and other similar phrases in conversations or announcements about setting objectives to be achieved in various sectors of human activity, or as nations in our efforts to manage the consequences of global climate change. It would appear many of these terms are used interchangeably or with little regard to their respective specific meanings.
Zero emissions means no GHG emissions are created by a specific activity or sector. For example driving an electric vehicle (EV) creates zero emissions, and if this EV replaces a car with a combustion engine, then this action results in a net reduction of emissions. Using solar panels or wind energy to generate electricity creates zero emissions, and also results in a net reduction of GHG emissions if this replaces energy generated by hydrocarbons.
When a target of achieving zero emissions is set from a current state where GHG are created by an activity, this involves an actual absolute measurable reduction in terms of the amount of GHG emitted today to zero by a given future date. We are speaking of eliminating a measurable specific amount of GHG emissions.
Net-zero emissions means GHG emissions are still being created but they are balanced by GHG removed from the atmosphere. When the amount of GHG emitted equals the amount of GHG removed the balance is zero, hence net-zero emissions are achieved. Current practice toward net-zero emissions involves using carbon offsets, which typically consist of emissions reductions made elsewhere. Often carbon-offsets involve reforestation, forest protection, and/or forest management programs in developing nations.
Achieving net-zero emissions involves an entity (’emitter’) that generates GHG emissions, while concurrently achieving reductions that are insufficient to get to zero emissions. To counteract this imbalance between GHG emissions and reductions, the emitter may engage another entity (‘reducer’) which is capable of reducing emissions, but may lack funding to implement proposed GHG reduction measures. The emitter then provides funding, pays, to the reducer to implement GHG emission-reduction measures, in effect buying enough emissions reduction to offsets its own imbalance. Hence, the emitter is buying carbon offsets from the reducer.
On paper at least, the purchase of carbon-offsets allows an emitter to balance out its emissions balance sheet and achieve net-zero emissions. This is good, right? Or is it really?
In terms of real GHG emissions reduction the practice of buying carbon-offsets raises critically important questions related to its effectiveness. Since the practice involves separate entities, emitter and reducer, which are often in different countries, how can you ensure such carbon-offsets are real, credible, robust, continuous, verifiable, and above all measurable, and counted only once?
For example, say a big international airline in an effort to neutralize its carbon footprint under International Civil Aviation Organization standards, purchases carbon credits related to forest management projects in Peru and Kenya. These projects, vetted by the United Nations, aim to curtail unsustainable farming practices involving forest clearing, by stopping the influx of settlers, deforestation and degradation of forest, and engaging in aggressive reforestation. Organizations in Peru and Kenya will use funds paid by the airline to hire staff and resources to achieve the objectives mentioned. In theory this will ensure healthier growing forests, which will remove increasing amounts of GHG from the atmosphere, thus offsetting emissions by the airline in question.
Information about the projects shows these are carried-out by hiring forest rangers to monitor designated forest and alert authorities to prevent forbidden clearing activities, arborists and other staff to grow and plant new trees, educators and other staff to engage in outreach and public education efforts highlighting the benefits of healthy forests and the need to reduce GHG emissions, and other professionals to help people engage in new remunerative activities away from unsustainable farming for their own sustenance. Organizations responsible for these projects also keep compliance records, and report to international oversight entities to ensure transparency, the absolute uniqueness of each carbon-offset transaction, and the robustness of these programs.
Despite these assurances, in my opinion, there is ample room for skepticism regarding the actual effectiveness of relying on these or other such carbon-offset mechanisms to balance-out imbalances in GHG emissions, or to achieve measurable and verifiable actual reductions of emissions. While important efforts have been implemented to address these critical issues, a healthy dose of inquiry and doubt must be maintained regarding the effectiveness and level of uncertainty of the net-zero approach. The stakes are too high for humanity to act otherwise.
It is beyond the scope of this brief post to engage in a detailed dissection and analysis of pros and cons regarding the net-zero approach toward emissions reduction, so this will remain a topic for a future post. For now, what is important is to focus on the difference in terms of effectiveness between an actual reduction in GHG emissions, such as that achieved by the example of EVs and renewable energy given above, and that resulting from the net-zero method.
It may sound positive and good when the President or the Mayor commit to net-zero emissions by a certain future date, but we need to recognize it is much more positive and good-sounding when our leaders are able to announce an actual percentage of reduction from a prior level of emissions.
Let us inform and educate ourselves and the public at large about the nuanced differences between reduction methods under one’s control and those that depend on the actions of third parties and associated challenges. Not all zeros are created equal!