Green snake oil

"Net zero" pledges are often not what they seem.

Happy Monday, hot stuff. It’s the last week of September, which means two important things:

  1. It’s Libra Season, and

  2. We’re a little over a month away from the COP26 international climate negotiations in Glasgow, Scotland, which start on October 31 and go until November 12.

Expect to hear a lot about these talks moving forward. They’re important. The world’s most-polluting countries and corporations will lay our their plans to reduce emissions for the next 8 crucial years, the last chance we have at keeping the global temperature from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius.

In these plans, you’re going to hear a lot of promises to reach “net zero” emissions—in fact, we already are. Last week, 200 major companies signed a pledge to become net zero by 2040. I think it’s important you know what that means.

For today’s main story, I’m re-publishing a March story from The Conversation that explains why net zero pledges should inspire a healthy dose of skepticism. Before that, lots of good/bad news to start your week—and after that, dogs. Enjoy.

A HISTORIC CLIMATE ELECTION IN GERMANY. Europe’s biggest economy is in more climate-friendly hands after the country’s center-left Social Democrat party narrowly defeated Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic party on Monday morning. The country’s environmentalist Green party also had its best-ever showing, coming in third place and securing 14.8 percent of the vote. (New York Times, Bloomberg, New York Times, EuroNews, Euractiv).

ANOTHER CALI CITY SAYS SAYONARA TO GAS. In a huge milestone for the “electrify everything” movement, the city of Encinitas became the 50th California city to pass an ordinance severely restricting the use of methane gas in new buildings. It’s also the first city in San Diego County to pass such an ordinance. (Encinitas Advocate, Yale E360).

THE U.N. LOOSENS ITS TIES TO BIG OIL. Oil giants like BP and Shell will no longer be able to be official sponsors of the U.N. climate conference in Glasgow this year, following pressure and criticism by climate activists. The oil giants can only become sponsors now if they show they have “credible” emissions reductions plans. (WSJ).

BIG OIL EXECS SUMMONED TO TESTIFY BEFORE CONGRESS. “The U.S. House Oversight and Reform Committee has summoned top executives from Exxon, Shell, BP and Chevron and two affiliated lobbying groups to testify in front of a committee hearing in October, as part of its ongoing investigation into the fossil fuel industry's promotion of climate disinformation.” (Living on Earth, New York Times).

CHINA PROMISES TO STOP FINANCING COAL PLANTS ABROAD. Still a long way to go with China’s emissions, but this is big. If implemented as promised, it “should help to kill off coal, which has been humanity’s primary power source for most of the last 200 years.” (The Guardian).

AUSTRALIA PM MIGHT SKIP COP26 BECAUSE QUARANTINE IS HARD. Australia is the world’s largest coal exporter and the highest per capita CO2 emitter among the world’s richest nations. But the country’s famously coal-loving prime minister Scott Morrison said on Monday that he might not attend international climate negotiations in Glasgow because “it involves the two-week domestic quarantine,” among other things. (ABC, Climate Analytics, Washington Post).


The fossil fuel-backed Democratic Senator said on Saturday he didn’t understand why progressive Democrats are in such a hurry to pass the most aggressive climate legislation ever considered by Congress. “What’s the need? There is no timeline. I want to understand it,” he told Politico. (Politico, NPR, New York Times).

MANCHIN SAYS $3.5 TRILLION TOO EXPENSIVE—BUT WON’T GIVE ACCEPTABLE NUMBER. Democratic Sen. Jon Tester told Politico that Manchin is willing to compromise on the climate bill, but is fiscally wary. “$3.5 trillion is a lot of money, it shakes into his soul,” he said. But Manchin also hasn’t yet said how much spending would be acceptable, despite President Biden asking him last week to “please just work on” giving him a number. (The Hill, Politico).

OTHER, $1.2 TRILLION “CLIMATE LITE” BILL HANGS IN THE BALANCE. Congress is considering another, far less ambitious but still mildly significant climate bill—the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, which was supposed to be voted on today. But a coalition of progressive lawmakers have vowed to vote against the bipartisan infrastructure bill until the $3.5 trillion climate bill passes with it. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi agrees with them, and on Sunday she delayed the infrastructure vote until Thursday. (New York Times, The Atlantic).

THE “CLIMATE LITE” BILL ALONE IS NOT ENOUGH. The U.S. will not be able to meet its emissions reduction commitments under the Paris agreement with just the infrastructure bill. In addition, the Sierra Club said last week that the infrastructure bill on its own “would actively cause harm by supporting fossil fuels, harming frontline and Tribal communities, endangering the health of forests and public lands, and undermining hard-fought protections for clean air and water and environmental justice.” (EENews, Washington Post, Sierra Club).

The following article was originally published on The Conversation, which provides informed commentary and debate on the issues affecting our world.

Why you should be skeptical of “net zero” pledges

By Oliver Miltenberger and Matthew D. Potts

Hundreds of companies, including major emitters like United Airlines, BP and Shell, have pledged to reduce their impact on climate change and reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. These plans sound ambitious, but what does it actually take to reach net-zero and, more importantly, will it be enough to slow climate change?

As environmental policy and economics researchers, we study how companies make these net-zero pledges. Though the pledges make great press releases, net-zero is more complicated and potentially problematic than it may seem.

What is ‘net-zero’?

The gold standard for reaching net-zero emissions looks like this: A company identifies and reports all emissions it is responsible for creating, it reduces them as much as possible, and then—if it still has emissions it cannot reduce—it invests in projects that either prevent emissions elsewhere or pull carbon out of the air to reach a “net-zero” balance on paper.

The process is complex and still largely unregulated and ill-defined. As a result, companies have a lot of discretion over how they report their emissions. For example, a multinational mining company might count emissions from extracting and processing ore but not the emissions produced by transporting it.

Companies also have discretion over how much they rely on what are known as offsets —the projects they can fund to reduce emissions. The oil giant Shell, for example, projects that it will both achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 and continue to produce high levels of fossil fuel through that year and beyond.

How? It proposes to offset the bulk of its fossil-fuel-related emissions through massive nature-based projects that capture and store carbon, such as forest and ocean restoration. In fact, Shell alone plans to deploy more of these offsets by 2030 than were available globally in 2019.

Environmentalists may welcome Shell’s newfound conservationist agenda, but what if other oil companies, the airline industries, the shipping sectors and the U.S. government all propose a similar solution? Is there enough land and ocean realistically available for offsets, and is simply restoring environments without fundamentally changing the business-as-usual paradigm really a solution to climate change?

Concerns about voluntary carbon markets

Outside of compliance emissions markets, which primarily focus on government regulation in the energy sector, voluntary markets create most of the offsets that are used to reach net-zero.

Voluntary markets are organized and operated by a diverse range of groups where anyone can participate. Have you ever seen the option to offset your flight? That offset probably happens through a voluntary carbon market. The activities that produce the offsets include projects like forestry and ocean management, waste management, agricultural practices, fuel switching and renewable energy. As the name implies, they are voluntary and therefore largely unregulated.

Because of the wave of net-zero pledges and subsequent demand for offsets, voluntary carbon markets are under pressure to expand quickly. A task force launched by United Nations Special Envoy on Climate Action Mark Carney and involving several major companies released a sweeping blueprint at Davos 2021 that predicts voluntary carbon markets need to grow fifteenfold over the next decade. It suggests that the net-zero surge represents one of the largest commercial opportunities of our time – prompting keen interest from investors and big business. It also identifies and proposes solutions to some persistent challenges and critiques of voluntary carbon offset markets.

Some critics of the blueprint argue that it overlooks deeper problems rooted in the overall reliance on and effectiveness of voluntary carbon markets as a solution.

Though there is historical evidence of misuse and plenty of criticism, voluntary carbon markets are not inherently bad or useless in the pursuit of climate targets. In fact, quite the opposite. Some voluntary carbon market projects, in addition to mitigating climate change, provide other benefits, such as improvements to biodiversity habitats, water quality, soil health and socioeconomic opportunities.

However, there are real concerns about the ability of voluntary markets to legitimately deliver what they promise. Common concerns include questions about the permanence of the projects for storing carbon long term, verifying that offsets actually reduce emissions beyond a business-as-usual scenario and confirming that credits are not being used more than once. These and other challenges expose voluntary carbon markets to potential manipulation, greenwashing, unintended consequences and, regrettably, failure to achieve their purpose.

It’s getting better, but over-reliance on this method for counterbalancing emissions does risk some entities’ using offsets as a right to pollute.

To read the rest of the article on The Conversation, click here.

Fish is out of town with his actual owner this week. (Periodic reminder that Fish is my roommate’s dog, not mine). But he has been feeling extroverted lately and has decided he’d like to share his weekly Catch of the Day section with new friends.

His newest friends are Lily and Leo, two good, safe and stylish pups submitted by reader Steven Holl.

Do you know a dog, cat, or other type of pet who would be interested in hanging out with Fish at Catch of the Day? Submit their picture, name, and any other info you might want included at

Stay safe, drink water, break a sweat, eat a plant. See you all next week.