Beware net-zero: A toxic tour of COP26

Green World Editorial Board's Francesca Gater accompanies activists on a 'toxic tour' of COP26, discovering that 'net-zero' may not be all that it seems. Reflecting on the actions of the EU, UN and UK, as well as the summit itself, she outlines where the strategy is falling short.

A porter stood by a COP26 banner

UNFCCC_COP26_1Nov21_LeadersWelcome_KiaraWorth-23 (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Francesca Gater

The Glasgow climate summit has been billed as the ‘net-zero’ COP. References to ‘net-zero’ are everywhere – in the leaders’ speeches, around the venue and the city, even on some negotiators’ facemasks. And, when the talks end later this week, our host, the UK government, wants to be able to take the credit for getting the world to agree on a date for reaching ‘net-zero’ emissions. 

But, beware. ‘Net-zero’ is a dangerous distraction from ‘real zero’. 

I joined climate campaigners on a ‘toxic tour’ of the conference centre to find out more about what’s hidden behind the ‘net-zero’ agenda, who’s pushing it, and why.

First stop, the European Union (EU) – an early adopter of net-zero.

In a speech on Monday, President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen led the charge, saying, ‘…at this COP, we all must speed up our race to net-zero’. The EU likes to portray itself as a climate leader, but behind closed doors, it is a champion of the risky technologies, flawed schemes and creative accounting that net-zero conceals. In the same speech, von der Leyen urged negotiators, ‘to make global carbon markets a reality’. Carbon markets are part of the net-zero illusion – they allow big polluters to achieve supposed emissions reductions by buying carbon credits from other less polluting countries or actors. They are proven to lead to fraud and speculation, and crucially, have not been proven to substantially reduce emissions.  

Speaking at the EU stop on the tour, Bo Adams Pandelaers of Fridays for Future Belgium told us, “The EU is championing net zero in its European Green Deal as a way to decarbonize. But behind net-zero hides business-as-usual. The EU needs to step away from fossil fuels once and for all.”  

Second stop, the business pavilion. 

The overall agenda of businesses here is to push-through self-regulatory approaches. Companies push voluntary systems which have no real teeth to avoid real regulation. They release net-zero plans but these are not trackable, actionable, nor accountable. They also push corporate-controlled technofixes over the genuine solutions that lie in the hands of people. Take hydrogen – one of the silver bullets hailed by net-zero proponents. The hydrogen hype of big polluters is really about securing business as usual. They would have us believe hydrogen is clean, but, in reality, less than 0.1 per cent of global hydrogen production is ‘green’, with the vast majority coming from fossil gas. The beneficiaries of funding for hydrogen development are the usual suspects of the fossil fuel industry, including oil and gas majors like Total and Shell.

Next, on to the United Nations itself.

Since the Paris climate talks in 2015, the UNFCCC has had a huge influence in pushing net-zero. Race to Zero is an UN-convened programme gathering businesses, financial institutions, cities and other actors. It is a voluntary initiative with no accountability or penalties should participants fail to deliver the pledges they’ve made. Among the members are Heathrow Airport and Drax Power Station – two of the UK’s biggest sources of CO2. Under the scheme, Drax is able to say it has a plan to reach net zero, but it does not count the emissions caused by the cutting down of the trees that it burns! 

Ahead of COP26, Race to Zero signatories released a so-called master plan. It includes a massive roll-out of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) and other unproven carbon removal technologies. According to our speaker on this stop of the tour – Scott Tully of Glasgow Calls Out Polluters: “Some of the world’s biggest emitters are getting the institutional seal of approval from the Race to Zero programme”.

And last on the tour, but by no means least – the UK. 

The UK government has put net-zero front and centre of its presidency. Earlier this year it launched the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero (GFANZ) – yet another industry forum that puts those responsible for climate breakdown in charge of fixing it. Many CEOs of big financial institutions are involved, and it is chaired by Mark Carney, formerly of the Bank of England and Goldman Sachs.

In Glasgow, the UK Presidency scheduled a whole ‘finance day’ to profile GFANZ and position the finance sector as part of the solution to climate change, rather than the root cause it really is.  

Speaking about GFANZ, Molly Scott Cato, the Green Party of England and Wales’ spokesperson on finance said: “To be part of this net-zero club, financial institutions are required to measure their investment against a net-zero pathway, but they will be undertaking that measurement themselves. Yet again we are seeing financiers marking their own homework.”   

The final speaker on the tour was Sarah McArthur of the UK Youth Climate Coalition who said, “Net-zero is based on cancelling out emissions, not reducing them. It’s not a recipe for transformational change, it’s a license for business as usual,” – which pretty much sums it up. 

The ‘toxic tour’ of COP26 brought to life research by NGOs Corporate Accountability, Corporate Europe Observatory, Friends of the Earth International and Global Forest Alliance – their report ‘The Big Con’ details how rich polluting governments and corporations are using net-zero to block and avoid meaningful climate action. 

It’s scary to hear about the scam that is net-zero, and to see on the ‘toxic tour’ how ever-present it is here. We must be wary of net-zero and, instead, judge the COP26 outcomes on their progress towards real zero.