Is Net Zero a “dangerous trap”?

June 2, 2021

Voices in the environment sector have long fired criticisms at Net Zero, the Government’s target for eradicating emissions by the middle of this century. Last year, Greta Thunberg argued that the world should ‘forget’ Net Zero, and an article recently posted by The Conversation argued it is a “dangerous trap”. However, the opposite is true; Net Zero is a practical and a political victory for the decarbonisation agenda, not a dangerous trap worth forgetting.

The authors of The Conversation article argue that Net Zero creates a false sense of security because it legitimises commercially unproven negative emission technologies by cementing a need for negative emissions within a legal target. This, the authors argue, distracts us from the necessary deep cuts in emissions now, because we are relying on future innovation to solve the problem. We are betting the farm on negative emission technologies plugging the ever growing emissions gap between our current emissions and the goals of the Paris Agreement.

The claim should not discourage diplomats and campaigners from endorsing the Net Zero strategy. If anything, what Net Zero has done for climate highlights the potential benefits of adopting ‘net impact’ approaches in more areas of environmental policy. This is increasingly being done, such as through the UK’s introduction of ‘net biodiversity gain’ in the planning system, but it could be extended further. Ultimately, this could hold the key to delivering the goal of the Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan: to leave the environment in a better state than they found it. We have to find a way for humans to prosper whilst limiting our impact on the natural world. The ‘net impact’ approach is key to doing so.

Net Zero is not a dangerous trap

The “dangerous trap” stance is misguided for two reasons.

Firstly, Net Zero encapsulates the practical reality that reducing emissions is not simply a case of ‘do it now and do it quickly’. For instance, there are technical challenges that mean fully decarbonising some sectors is currently not possible, such as aviation. Moreover, society’s emissions will never reach absolute zero because some of the uses of fossil fuels are non-substitutable, such as in some chemical processes.

Secondly, the flexibility of Net Zero navigates the thorny, long-term political challenge of climate change. Decarbonisation is deeply political. It could be unnecessarily expensive if the right choices are not made today, and in a post-Covid world, economic and fiscal sustainability will be more important than ever. Moreover, the jury is still out on how the UK should decarbonise over time; although the Government has committed to the headline targets in the CCC’s Sixth Carbon Budget, it is unclear where emissions reductions will come from next.

For instance, most of the UK’s emission reductions so far have come from the power sector through phasing out coal and growing our stock of renewables. However, the next stage of emissions cuts will be more technically difficult, because it requires decarbonising transport and heating which combines policies that take effect at the granular level of individual consumers with bigger infrastructural issues.

Politics will become a bigger sticking point for climate policy going forward as consumers’ lives are increasingly impacted. Emissions reductions in the power sector tend not to be noticed by consumers, so long as electricity comes out of the plug socket when needed. Retrofitting draughty homes with bulky energy efficiency measures and replacing gas boilers is harder to do without anyone noticing. This underscores the point that any climate policies need to be politically sustainable. If Governments act too quickly, or in the wrong way, they can end up taking backwards steps, as shown in the 2018 ‘gilets jaunes’ protests in France over rising fuel prices, or in the form of populist climate sceptics such as Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro.

Net Zero is therefore a pragmatic strategy, not a “dangerous trap”. It accepts the practical reality that decarbonisation needs to involve some negative emissions, while providing a flexible framework for reducing emissions.

Based on these defining strengths, there are also lessons here for other areas of environmental policy.

Expanding the use of ‘net impact’ policies

Reducing our impacts on the environment is not always a case of ‘stop a damaging activity and stop it now’, in the same way that reducing emissions is not simply a case of ‘do it now and do it quickly’. The success of Net Zero in the climate sphere highlights the potential benefits of using ‘net impact’ approaches in other areas of environmental policy.

For instance, transport-related air pollution could benefit from a net impacts approach because these approaches navigate practical and political issues more easily. Current air pollution policies focus on reducing tailpipe emissions, such as nitrogen dioxide (NO2). While increasing the number of electric vehicles (EVs) on the UK’s roads reduces harmful tailpipe emissions, it may increase the emission of other health-harming air pollutants. EVs are typically heavier than their petrol and diesel counterparts, resulting in higher rates of brake and tyre wear and creating higher Particulate Matter (PM) emissions.

Current policy levers in the air pollution ‘tool kit’ are ill-suited to dealing with the unintended consequence of higher PM emissions from electric vehicles. For instance, the technical basis of Clean Air Zones would need to be reconfigured to account for EVs.

If a net impacts approach was adopted, air pollution policy would automatically account for the change in air pollution from tailpipe to PM emissions. For instance, as manufacturers produce more EVs ahead of the UK’s 2030 phaseout of new petrol and diesel cars, they could be mandated to improve the ‘net impact’ of their vehicles on air pollution, such as through using hardier brakes and tyres that produce less PM.

As Net Zero did for climate change, this approach has practical and political benefits.

In practical terms, current air pollution policies like Clean Air Zones would not need to be reconfigured to account for EVs, because manufacturers would be incentivised to reduce PM emissions at source. Further, the ‘net impact’ approach would be easy for manufacturers to calculate.

In political terms, current policies maintain the pattern of less well-off areas being subject to higher levels of air pollution than other areas, because EVs would still generate Particulate Matter pollution. Requiring net improvements would automatically deal with this political tension by guaranteeing a reduction in all air pollutants, rather than substituting tailpipe emissions for PM emissions.

Designing net impact approaches

Reaping the benefits of a net impact approach depends on several important factors.

First, the impacts of an activity must be clearly defined and measurable, otherwise policymakers cannot determine whether the impact of something are positive or negative. For instance, the UK is introducing a policy of ‘net environmental gain’ in the planning system. A decade of trials fed into this policy to determine what a suitable definition for environmental net gain could be, with the result being a ‘Biodiversity Metric’ based on restoring certain types of affected habitat. Definitions are key to success; any net impact policy needs a reliable a baseline from which ‘net’ is defined, and a clear idea of what metrics are being used to measure impacts.

Second, net impact policies must be enforceable, otherwise they can be used to game environmental improvements. For instance, since 2016, the Greater London Authority has required major developments to be net zero; major developers reduce their on-site emissions as much as they can and pay into a fund to offset any remaining emissions. The fund is then meant to invest in carbon offset projects around the capital, so that the net emissions of major developments is zero.

However, it appears the fund has not enforced either the collecting of offset money from developers, or the spending of collected money, resulting in a net negative impact on emissions. For instance, as of March 2021, the fund has only collected £32 million of the £90 million owed by developers. Of the £32 million collected, only £14 million has been committed to carbon offset projects. As a consequence, £76 million remains unspent. At a carbon price of £95 tonne of CO2 (£/t_CO2), which is the recommended carbon price in the New London Plan, this equates to 800,000 tonnes of CO2that has not been offset – the equivalent annual emissions of 173,000 passenger vehicles.

Reaping the rewards of a net impact approach requires clear definitions and governance mechanisms. This does not mean they are inherently “dangerous”, because compliance is necessary for the success of any policy. If anything, their potential benefits merit extending their use to other areas. Under the right conditions, net impact approaches could hold the key to delivering the goal of the Government’s 25-Year Environment Plan of leaving the environment in a better state than they inherited it.

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