Overline: RIFS Policy Brief
Headline: The Silver Bullet Fallacy of “Net Zero”

A new RIFS Policy Brief warns that the promise of future technologies for the abatement and removal of carbon dioxide is being used to justify inaction on reducing fossil fuels, even though this is incompatible with limiting warming to 1.5°C or 2°C. Ahead of COP28 in Dubai, the authors urge policymakers to face up to the inescapable reality that achieving the goal of “net zero” greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) will require deep and rapid reductions in carbon dioxide emissions, and that this in turn means nearly completely phasing out fossil fuels.

Deep emissions reductions can only be achieved by moving away from fossil fuels.
Deep emissions reductions can only be achieved by moving away from fossil fuels. iStock / ANGHI

“Despite the growing understanding of the already disastrous impacts of climate change, there is not yet a political consensus on the need to phase down — let alone phase out — fossil energy sources. This should be cause for serious concern,” comments lead author Kathleen A. Mar, who prepared the policy brief “The Political Logic of Net Zero” together with scientists Charlotte Unger and Stefan Schäfer and RIFS Scientific Director Mark G. Lawrence. Instead, many policymakers and industry actors claim that the problem posed by greenhouse gas emissions can be managed by scaling up technologies to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere or to capture carbon dioxide from emissions sources without having to give up fossil fuels as an energy source. However, this is simply not the case: at present these technologies can only compensate for a fraction of current emissions.

“Expansion of Carbon Dioxide Removal and Carbon Capture, Usage and Storage on a scale that could compensate for continued fossil fuel use at or above current levels — and on a timescale fast enough that would prevent significant irreversible climatic changes — is extremely unlikely to be realized,” explains Mar, who leads the RIFS Research Group on Climate Action in National and International Processes (ClimAct). In light of this, the stark reality is that these technologies only represent a climate “solution” in as much as they go hand in hand with deep emissions reductions — and these can only be achieved by moving away from fossil fuels.

The policy brief also considers the merits of efforts to push for an agreement at COP28 on tripling renewable energy capacity by 2030. This is a laudable goal, and if achieved it will be rightly seen as a success. However, Kathleen Mar predicts: “My expectation is that at COP28, negotiators will come to an agreement on expanding renewable energies, but that, given the economic and political power still held by the fossil fuel industry, the conference will end without an agreement on phasing out fossil fuels. Unfortunately, one without the other will not put us on track to meet agreed-upon climate targets.”  

Co-author and RIFS Scientific Director Mark G. Lawrence explains: “While some countries have been able to displace some of their fossil energy use with renewables, the global picture is that renewables have been largely in addition to, rather than substituting for fossil fuels. And while this is certainly preferable to an even more rapid expansion of fossil fuels, it does not put us on a pathway to limit global warming to 1.5°C or 2°C.”

The RIFS researchers argue that in addition to obscuring the need to phase out fossil fuels, a focus on technological solutions to the climate crisis comes at the expense of concerted and determined action to put society on a pathway towards sustainable development. The policy brief cautions that achieving our climate and broader sustainable development goals will require transformations that go beyond energy systems and re-imagine the structures and institutions behind our patterns of consumption, mobility, and food production, among others.

Publication: Mar, K. A., Unger, C., Schäfer, S., & Lawrence, M. G. (2023). The Political Logic of Net Zero. RIFS Policy Brief, 2023(4).
DOI: 10.48481/rifs.2023.030