Opponents Say Talk of Offsetting Greenhouse Gas Emissions Could Jeopardize Global Pact

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By Bryce Baschuk and Eric J. Lyman

Feb. 10 — Opposition to language proposing worldwide “net-zero” greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century surfaced Feb. 10, immediately after the language was added to the draft negotiating text that will be the basis for this year's Paris global climate agreement.

The net-zero 2050 proposal, offered by Switzerland at the United Nations climate talks in Geneva, would allow countries and companies to offset greenhouse gas emissions with controversial or relatively unproven carbon reduction technologies such as capturing and storing carbon dioxide underground, “biochar” initiatives that involve absorbing greenhouse gases into burned biomass, and genetic engineering technologies.

Any plan to reduce carbon emissions to zero will require offsets. But opponents of the new language fear a direct reference such as the “net-zero” proposal would promote the use of potentially disruptive types of offsets and slow the transition away from fossil fuels by making them more viable. Environmental groups also said the inclusion of the language in the negotiation text could harm developing nations and undermine the credibility of the Paris climate accord.

Varied Terminology 

A global goal of phasing out the use of fossil fuels by 2050 was first raised at the Conference of the Parties summit in Lima last December, where it was hailed as one of the main accomplishments of the talks. 

Various drafts of the negotiating text and other proposals since then have referred to “climate neutrality,” “carbon neutrality,” “near zero emissions,” “zero emissions” and “decarbonization” of the world economy by 2050.

Whatever the term, the concept remained the same: Countries and companies would strive to reduce emissions as much as possible while using offsets to balance out the rest.

“The long-term goal is to re-establish the balance of greenhouse gas emissions to a level the planet can naturally absorb,” Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, told Bloomberg BNA. “That balance has been catastrophically disturbed.”

Figueres said she uses the term “climate neutrality” to refer to the 2050 goal.

Businesses Support 2050 Net-Zero Goal 

The idea of advancing a “net-zero” 2050 proposal has found support among some of the world's top business leaders, according to a recent letter to Figueres.

The letter, dated Feb. 5, urged policy-makers to ensure that such a goal “becomes the foundation upon which countries build the text of the final agreement.”

“A global commitment to net-zero greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050 is what the world needs to avoid catastrophic impacts of climate change and is what governments, businesses, investors and communities need to plan and invest for the future,” the letter said.

The letter was signed by influential business leaders including Virgin Group founder Richard Branson; Huffington Post Media chair Arianna Huffington; Francois-Henri Pinault, the chief executive officer of Kering SA; Unilever Plc CEO Paul Polman; Nigerian Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala; former Tata Group Chairman Ratan Tata; and Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus, the founder of Grameen Bank.

Concerns From Developing Nations 

Environmental groups and delegates from African countries such as Tanzania and Kenya have pushed back on the inclusion of net-zero language, saying its implementation could burden developing countries.

“If we are talking about planting more trees in Africa, that creates a problem where there is less arable land for farming,” said Augustine Bantar Njamnshi, the chairman of the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance.

“Competition for the remaining arable land in Africa for food is increasing and this will only aggravate the problem,” Njamnshi said in an interview on the sidelines of the Geneva talks. “Poor people won't have enough land to grow the crops that they need to eat.”

“If these CEOs are serious about their urgency in addressing this global crisis they would not be talking about 2050,” Njamnshi said. “Their real intention is to provide more time to invest in business as usual and make profits.”

‘Science Fiction.'

Net-zero language would ultimately fuel a land grab, said Kate Dooley a climate activist and doctoral candidate at the University of Melbourne.

“Most of the technologies they are looking at is simpler stuff like growing trees, sequestering carbon dioxide in soil, biochar, and bioenergy carbon capture and storage,” she told Bloomberg BNA. “That implies use of land—extremely large amounts of land—and it immediately raises the issue of food security.”

The idea of planting more trees to offset carbon emissions on such a large scale is “science fiction,” said Ulriikka Aarnio, a senior policy officer with the Climate Action Network. “This would require a huge amount of land.”

As for carbon capture and sequestration options, it would be very difficult to monitor polluters, Aarnio said. “You would have to have a monitor at every power plant. The viability of a net system is just not doable.”

The Swiss proposal came on the same day as the U.S. government-funded scientific report said such efforts to intervene in climate change could work, but they need to be studied and tested more before they are widely deployed.

The language will almost surely be left in the negotiating text when it is finalized at the end of the Geneva negotiations Feb. 13, according to Figueres. The text will be finalized, translated, and distributed to parties by the end of May and will act as the basis for the global climate agreement scheduled to be finalized at the Paris summit in December.

To contact the reporter on this story: Bryce Baschuk and Eric J. Lyman in Geneva at correspondents@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Greg Henderson at ghenderson@bna.com

Switzerland's net-zero proposal is available at http://bit.ly/1xVtCvW.

The business leaders' letter supporting such a policy is available at http://bteam.org/the-b-team/b-team-open-letter-calls-for-bold-climate-action-at-cop21-in-paris/.