Is ‘net zero’ much ado about nothing?

May 11, 2021 by  
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Is ‘net zero’ much ado about nothing? Joel Makower Tue, 05/11/2021 – 02:11 It feels almost quaint to remember way back when “80 by 50” — an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 — was a bold goal for a company or government entity to make. It was seen by many as audacious, possibly unachievable, but still a necessary target. The “way back when” in this case seems to be around 2014 . Ah, yes: The good old days. Today, “80 by 50” would not pass muster. Net zero is the near-universal goal of nations, states, provinces, cities, companies, universities and others. And even that goal sometimes gets knocked as being too little, too late. This week, as the full fleet of GreenBiz weekly newsletters focuses on the topic of net zero, I thought it might be helpful to start off with some simple questions that seem to encircle that goal. The five questions below represent just a sampling of issues surrounding what net zero means — and doesn’t. These questions and others will be central to our upcoming (and free) VERGE Net Zero  conference in August. First, what is net zero? For those not yet up to speed, net zero refers to the goal of emitting no greenhouse gases by a specific date, typically 2050. However, Germany just committed to reaching this goal by 2045. Corporate signatories to the Climate Pledge have committed to net zero by 2040.  IBM said it would reach that milestone in 2030. The bar continues to move. Such commitments often are coupled with an interim goal of cutting emissions in half by, say, 2030. The overriding question whether net zero will be largely a check-the-box activity or a truly disruptive force. The answer is up for grabs. Net zero can be achieved, first and foremost, by cutting or eliminating greenhouse gas emissions and, secondarily, by offsetting any remaining emissions through such actions as planting trees, investing in renewable energy projects that replace fossil-fuel energy, or investing in novel carbon-removal technologies such as direct air capture . The concept of net zero goes back nearly a decade, in the run-up to the 2015 COP21 climate conference in Paris. According to one telling , a group of female climate leaders met at a Scottish estate in 2013 to discuss bold climate goals that could be enacted two years later in Paris. After a heated debate, they agreed that the goal should be to pursue net zero by midcentury. In the Paris Agreement that ultimately resulted, negotiators agreed “to achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century.” That is, to achieve net-zero emissions. Is net zero the same as carbon neutral? The terms are often used interchangeably, although there are subtle but critical differences. You can become carbon neutral simply by buying offsets — for a year’s worth of driving or air travel, for example. Net zero would require that you drive or fly as little as possible, offsetting only what’s unavoidable. The same principle holds for any other activity — for a company, building, factory, product, community or nation. In some cases (as with ExxonMobil, for example), companies have committed to net-zero carbon intensity, a term that means that the amount of carbon per unit of measure does not increase, even as overall emissions may rise. Exxon has come under fire from activist investors for a stance that, critics say, disingenuously claims to be net zero but, in fact, will lead to an increase in overall emissions in the coming years. Does net zero rely too much on offsets? Companies are being increasingly criticized for investing more into offsets than into actual emissions reductions. That is, simply buying offsets in lieu of any emissions reductions is taboo. But, given that there is no universal standard about how much offsetting is the “right” amount, it’s an open field for organizations to claim pretty much whatever they want. But that could change. The Science Based Targets initiative is working on what it calls “the first global standard for net-zero business.” Is net zero achievable with existing technologies? Most experts believe we have the technologies, although some are not yet cost-competitive. But many are. Cutting energy use — the first step in reducing emissions — relies on a sizable toolbelt of well-oiled energy-efficiency technologies with relatively fast returns on investment. The next steps are harder, however. Electrification — transforming cars, buildings, factories and other things to operate on electricity rather than, say, oil or natural gas — is a fast-emerging field. And affordable, enabling technologies — electric vehicles and grid battery storage, among them — are quickly coming to market. Beyond that is carbon capture, a portfolio of technologies that remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and store them securely for decades or centuries, including in products such as concrete . And there are carbon-free fuels that show great promise, such as blue and green hydrogen , but that are still nascent and expensive. Is net zero greenwash? Some think so. Critics say that the overreliance on offsets and unproven technologies, combined with the roughly three-decade time horizon to achieve most net-zero goals, enable companies to continue business as usual for the foreseeable future while still maintaining a net-zero stance. As a result, as I noted a couple months back , net zero may be in for a backlash. “Far from signifying climate ambition, the phrase ‘net zero’ is being used by a majority of polluting governments and corporations to evade responsibility, shift burdens, disguise climate inaction, and in some cases even to scale up fossil fuel extraction, burning and emissions,” stated the watchdog group Corporate Accountability, which published a report last fall on “How ‘net zero’ targets disguise climate inaction.” “The term is used to greenwash business-as-usual or even business-more-than-usual,” it continued. “At the core of these pledges are small and distant targets that require no action for decades and promises of technologies that are unlikely ever to work at scale, and which are likely to cause huge harm if they come to pass.” Activists, including investors, aren’t likely to accept any old net-zero commitment without holding it to intense scrutiny. For companies, that means the bar likely will rise over time. The overriding question, at the end of all this, is how companies and others will lean into their net-zero commitments in the years ahead — whether they will be largely check-the-box activities or a truly disruptive force. Right now, the answer is up for grabs. These are among the issues worth pondering, debating and embracing. Indeed, they’ll be front and center at our upcoming Net Zero event. Nothing less than our lives and future rest on the answers. I invite you to follow me on Twitter, subscribe to my Monday morning newsletter, GreenBuzz , and listen to GreenBiz 350 , my weekly podcast, co-hosted with Heather Clancy. Pull Quote The overriding question whether net zero will be largely a check-the-box activity or a truly disruptive force. The answer is up for grabs. Topics Energy & Climate Emissions Reduction Net-Zero Offsets Featured Column Two Steps Forward Featured in featured block (1 article with image touted on the front page or elsewhere) Off Duration 0 Sponsored Article Off GreenBiz photocollage, via Shutterstock

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Is ‘net zero’ much ado about nothing?

Are we on the cusp of the ‘Age of Freedom’?

July 23, 2020 by  
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Are we on the cusp of the ‘Age of Freedom’? Shana Rappaport Thu, 07/23/2020 – 01:00 Anything with “technology convergence” and “climate change” in the same sentence captures my attention. Contextualize it in the “making or breaking of human civilization as we know it” and I’m hooked — and admittedly a tad skeptical. That’s why I buckled up and dug into the recent 90-page report put forth by think tank RethinkX , co-founded by internationally recognized technologists and futurists Tony Seba and James Arbib. ” Rethinking Humanity ” makes the case that the convergence of key technologies is about to disrupt the five foundational sectors that underpin the global economy, and with them every major industry in the world.  Super heady stuff, to be sure. The vision Seba and Arbib detail reads somewhat like a distant techno-utopia. But the vision they lay out isn’t all that far off: Climate change solved and poverty eradicated within the next 15 years? Got my attention. Given that Seba and Arbib have been impressively accurate over the past decade in predicting the speed and scale of technological disruption, I figured it was worth giving the analysis a closer look.  From extraction to creation  Focusing on the disruptive potential of emerging technologies in the information, energy, transportation, food and materials sectors, the report predicts that across all five — and within the next 10 years — we could see costs of key technologies fall by 10 times or more, production processes become 10 times more efficient, all while using 90 percent fewer natural resources and producing up to 100 times less waste. What Seba and Arbib are calling the “fastest, deepest, most consequential transformation of human civilization in history” isn’t just a reframe of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which we know is underway and being enabled by emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, robotics and 3D printing. Indeed, many of their predictions will sound familiar to those conversant in technological change. But it’s not just the march of progress of individual technologies that will save us. The report does not introduce this alluring vision as an absolute — quite the contrary. Therein lies one big variable: Humans need to make it happen, and fast.   Instead, the report posits that we are on the cusp of the third age of humankind — what they describe as “The Age of Freedom.” This new era will be defined by a shift away from models of centralized extraction to localized creation; ones built, they say, not on coal, oil, steel, livestock and concrete, but on photons, electrons, DNA, molecules and qbits (a unit of quantum information).  They predict, for example, that the combination of cheap solar and grid storage will transform energy systems into entirely distributed models of self-generation in which electrons are virtually free. And that as the widespread adoption of autonomous electric vehicles replaces car ownership with on-demand ride sharing, we’ll completely reimagine and redesign our roads, infrastructure and cityscapes. Their vision for the future of food, outlined in greater detail in another report last year, predicts that traditional agriculture soon will be replaced by industrial-scale brewing of single-celled organisms, genetically modified to produce all the nutrients we need ( say what? ). Similar processes, combined with additive manufacturing and nanotechnologies, will allow us to create all the materials necessary to build infrastructure for the modern world from the molecule up, rather than by continuing to extract scarce and depleting natural resources.  These transformations mirror, in many ways, what we’ve seen already in the information sector — in which the decentralization enabled by the internet has reduced barriers to communication and knowledge in ways unimaginable 25 years ago.  What may sound like a pipe dream is what Seba and Arbib claim could be a lifestyle akin to the “American Dream” — in terms of energy consumption, transport needs, nutritional value, housing and education — accessible to anyone for as little as $250 a month by 2030. Humanity at a crossroads  To be clear, the report does not introduce this alluring vision of The Age of Freedom as an absolute — quite the contrary. Therein lies one big variable: Humans need to make it happen, and fast. Will the public embrace self-driving cars and genetically modified foods, among other innovations? Futurists have been wrong before about such things. (Weren’t we all supposed to be getting around in flying cars by now?) “We can use the upcoming convergence of technology disruptions to solve the greatest challenges of humankind — inequality, poverty, environmental destruction if, and only if, we learn from history, recognize what is happening, understand the implications and make critical choices now; because these very same technologies that hold such promise are also accelerating civilization’s collapse,” Seba said. We can use the upcoming convergence of technology disruptions to solve the greatest challenges of humankind — inequality, poverty, environmental destruction if, and only if, we learn from history …   Indeed, we face an epic choice. But, are utopia or dystopia really our only options? Is framing the path forward in a binary win-or-lose scenario actually accurate, let alone helpful for the business leaders, policy makers and citizens in whose hands such a complex set of decisions rest today? And what about the millions of people without access to jobs, food, housing or healthcare right now? Where do they fit into this grand, seemingly idyllic plan? The report outlines a set of recommendations which, in many ways, seem as unlikely as the vision they’re intended to enable. Giving individuals ownership of data rights, scaling new models for community ownership of energy and transportation networks, and allowing states and cities autonomy on policies such as immigration, taxation and public expenditure, for example, take time. The rapid reimagining and restructuring of what they call our society’s fundamental “Organizing System” is no small feat. And the report seems to gloss over many messy realities of how social change actually occurs. Still, there’s something compelling here. Regardless whether Seba and Arbib’s techno-utopian dream materializes in the ways they’ve outlined, the report offers compelling ideas for building a more robust, resilient and equitable society than we’ve ever seen. It’s certainly good fodder as we enter a decade that will, without question, be defined by great disruption — and already is. Pull Quote The report does not introduce this alluring vision as an absolute — quite the contrary. Therein lies one big variable: Humans need to make it happen, and fast. We can use the upcoming convergence of technology disruptions to solve the greatest challenges of humankind — inequality, poverty, environmental destruction if, and only if, we learn from history … Topics Innovation Information Technology Corporate Social Responsibility Clean Economy Corporate Social Responsibility Featured Column On the VERGE Featured in featured block (1 article with image touted on the front page or elsewhere) Off Duration 0 Sponsored Article Off

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Are we on the cusp of the ‘Age of Freedom’?

Episode 149: Mobility insights from Lime, clean-energy policies that work

November 30, 2018 by  
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Also in this episode, digging into sustainable agriculture and what’s in store at the upcoming Sustainable Innovation Forum, being held alongside COP24 in Poland.

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Episode 149: Mobility insights from Lime, clean-energy policies that work

Episode 150: Mobility insights from Lime, clean-energy policies that work

November 30, 2018 by  
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Also in this episode, digging into sustainable agriculture and what’s in store at the upcoming Sustainable Innovation Forum, being held alongside COP24 in Poland.

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Episode 150: Mobility insights from Lime, clean-energy policies that work

Global Climate Action Summit: A business preview

September 4, 2018 by  
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Five themes, hundreds of events. Inside the upcoming San Francisco extravaganza.

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Global Climate Action Summit: A business preview

Behind the scenes: How Mars sources renewable energy

September 4, 2018 by  
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Here’s how the M&Ms maker is taking a bite out of its emissions.

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Behind the scenes: How Mars sources renewable energy

How recycling more steel and aluminum could slash imports without a trade war

June 19, 2018 by  
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While the upcoming steel and aluminum tarriffs sound scary, there is plenty of hope right here in the U.S.

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How recycling more steel and aluminum could slash imports without a trade war

Artist Nikolay Polissky’s latest wooden tower will be burned to the ground this month

February 3, 2017 by  
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Russian artist Nikolya Polissky is back with his latest work of handcrafted wood art. Polissky is well-known for his large-scale sculptures made out of reclaimed wood normally built in the middle of desolate landscapes. His latest work, an impressively large tower made from repurposed wood pallets, is destined to be ceremoniously burned for the upcoming traditional holiday of Maslenitsa. The tower is still a work in progress, but visibly stunning nonetheless. The large structure is made out of repurposed wood pallets and log tops. The next stage will see the tower covered with hay rolls that have been rejected as animal feed. Related: Nikolay Polissky Creates Massive ‘Beaubourg’ Sculpture Using Traditional Basket Weaving Techniques Although quite majestic in volume and stature, the wooden sculpture has an unfortunate date with a fiery fate. The tower is slated to be ceremoniously lit on fire for the upcoming traditional holiday of Maslenitsa. The ceremony, which will take place on February 25th, is a local celebration that burns a symbol of winter to welcome in the spring. + Nikolay Polissky Via Archdaily Photography by Ivan Polissky

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Artist Nikolay Polissky’s latest wooden tower will be burned to the ground this month

Corporate America, you must stand up to Trump

December 14, 2016 by  
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A call for business leaders to think about their long-term responsibility – even during the upcoming Presidential administration.

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Corporate America, you must stand up to Trump

The cost of sustainable development

November 24, 2015 by  
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Rich countries are supposed to give $100 billion to developing countries in the upcoming Paris climate talks to deal with climate change. How much has been committed and how will this work?

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The cost of sustainable development

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