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Negotiating Climate Change in Crisis

Steffen Böhm
Sian Sullivan

II. What counts?

4. Why net zero policies do more harm than good

James G. Dyke, Wolfgang Knorr et Robert Watson


Although well-intentioned, net zero policies have licensed a reckless ‘burn now, pay later’ approach, in which continuing with climate impacts is justified via promises of future technological salvation. Net zero thinking continues a three-decades-long process of mitigation delay in which academia has at times played an underappreciated role.

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1Sometimes realisation comes in a blinding flash. Blurred outlines snap into shape and suddenly it all makes sense. Underneath such revelations is typically a much slower-dawning process. Doubts at the back of the mind grow. The sense of confusion that things cannot be made to fit together increases until something clicks. Or perhaps snaps. Collectively we three authors of this article must have spent more than eighty years thinking about climate change. Why has it taken us so long to speak out about the obvious dangers of the concept of net zero? In our defence, the premise of net zero is deceptively simple—and we admit that it deceived us.

2The threats of climate change are the direct result of there being too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. So it follows that we must stop emitting more and even remove some of it. This idea is central to the world’s current plan to avoid catastrophe. In fact, there are many suggestions as to how to actually do this, from mass tree planting, to high-tech direct air capture devices that suck out carbon dioxide from the air (Hanna et al. 2021; also see Lankford’s chapter, this volume). The current consensus is that if we deploy these and other so-called ‘carbon dioxide removal’ techniques at the same time as reducing our burning of fossil fuels, we can more rapidly halt global warming. Hopefully around the middle of this century we will achieve ‘net zero’.

3Net zero is the point at which any residual emissions of greenhouse gases are balanced by technologies removing them from the atmosphere. This is a great idea, in principle. For example, it is currently hard to see how all emissions from agriculture will be zeroed out in time. Consequently, there will need to be some drawdown of carbon dioxide in order to offset such emissions. Unfortunately, in practice it helps perpetuate a belief in technological salvation and diminishes the sense of urgency surrounding the need to curb emissions now.

4We have now arrived at the painful realisation that the idea of net zero has licensed a recklessly cavalier ‘burn now, pay later’ approach which has seen carbon emissions continue to soar. It has also hastened the destruction of the natural world by increasing deforestation today, and greatly increases the risk of further devastation in the future. In fact, already in 2008, when the G8 were discussing a target of 50 % reduction by 2050, one of us [Knorr] co-authored a paper which pointed out that in order to stabilise the climate, net zero will be a necessity in the long term and remaining emissions would have to be balanced out by a residual “artificial sink” (House et al. 2008). In the IPCC’s projections, this ‘artificial sink’ grew out of proportions creating a fantasy world of planetary-scale carbon removal. The shocking revelation is that by bringing the need for net zero on to the table, we have also given licence for its abuse.

5To understand how this has happened, how humanity has gambled its civilisation on no more than promises of future solutions, we must return to the late 1980s, when climate change awareness broke on to the international stage.

Steps towards Net Zero

6On 22 June 1988, James Hansen was the administrator of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, a prestigious appointment but someone largely unknown outside of academia. By the afternoon of the 23 June he was well on the way to becoming the world’s most famous climate scientist. This was as a direct result of his testimony to the US congress, when he forensically presented the evidence that the Earth’s climate was warming and that humans were the primary cause: “[t] he greenhouse effect has been detected, and it is changing our climate now” (United States Congress Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources 1988).1

7If we had acted on Hansen’s testimony at the time, we would have been able to decarbonise our societies at a rate of around 2 % a year in order to give us about a two-in-three chance of limiting warming to no more than 1.5°C. It would have been a huge challenge, but the main task at that time would have been to simply stop the accelerating use of fossil fuels while fairly sharing out future emissions. This would have required increasing the efficiency of fossil fuel use in transportation, buildings, and industry.

8Four years later, there were glimmers of hope that this would be possible. During the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, all nations agreed to stabilise concentrations of greenhouse gases to ensure that they did not produce dangerous interference with the climate (Grubb et al 2019). The 1997 Kyoto Summit attempted to start to put that goal into practice (UNFCCC 1998). But as the years passed, the initial task of keeping us safe became increasingly harder, given that climate forcing was increasing due to increasing carbon emissions from fossil fuel use along with increased emissions of methane, nitrous oxide, and fluorinated chemicals.

9It was around that time that the first computer models linking greenhouse gas emissions to impacts on different sectors of the economy were developed. These hybrid climate-economic models are known as Integrated Assessment Models (Gambhir et al. 2019). They allowed modellers to link economic activity to the climate by, for example, exploring how changes in investments and technology could lead to changes in greenhouse gas emissions. They seemed like a miracle: you could try out policies on a computer screen before implementing them, saving humanity costly experimentation. They rapidly emerged to become key guidance for climate policy, a primacy they maintain to this day. Unfortunately, they also removed the need for deep critical thinking. Such models represent society as a web of idealised, emotionless buyers and sellers and thus ignore complex social and political realities, or even the impacts of climate change itself. Their implicit promise is that market-based approaches will always work. This meant that discussions about policies were limited to those most convenient to politicians: incremental changes to legislation and taxes.

10Around the time they were first developed, efforts were being made to secure US action on the climate by allowing it to count carbon sinks of the country’s forests (Dessai 2001). The US argued that if it managed its forests well, it would be able to store a large amount of carbon in trees and soil which should be subtracted from its obligations to limit the burning of coal, oil and gas. In the end, the US largely got its way. Ironically, the concessions were all in vain, since the US Senate never ratified the agreement. Postulating a future with more trees could in effect offset the burning of coal, oil and gas now. As models could easily churn out numbers that saw atmospheric carbon dioxide go as low as one wanted, ever more sophisticated scenarios could be explored which reduced the perceived urgency to reduce fossil fuel use. By including carbon sinks in climate-economic models, a Pandora’s box had been opened. It is here we find the genesis of today’s net zero policies.

11That said, most attention in the mid-1990s was focused on increasing energy efficiency and energy switching (such as the UK’s move from coal to gas) and the potential of nuclear energy to deliver large amounts of seemingly carbon-free electricity. The hope was that such innovations would quickly reverse increases in fossil fuel emissions.

12But by around the turn of the new millennium it was clear that such hopes were unfounded. Given their core assumption of incremental change, it was becoming more and more difficult for economic-climate models to find viable pathways to avoid dangerous climate change. In response, the models began to include more and more examples of carbon capture and storage, a technology that could remove the carbon dioxide from coal-fired power stations and then store the captured carbon deep underground indefinitely. This had been shown to be possible in principle: compressed carbon dioxide had been separated from fossil gas and then injected underground in a number of projects since the 1970s. These Enhanced Oil Recovery schemes were designed to force gases into oil wells in order to push oil towards drilling rigs and so allow more to be recovered—oil that would later be burnt, releasing even more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

13Carbon capture and storage offered the twist that instead of using the carbon dioxide to extract more oil, the gas would be left underground and removed from the atmosphere. This promised breakthrough technology would allow climate-friendly coal and so the continued use of this fossil fuel. But long before the world would witness any such schemes, the hypothetical process had been included in climate-economic models. In the end, the mere prospect of carbon capture and storage gave policy makers a way out of making the much-needed immediate cuts to greenhouse gas emissions.

The Rise of Net Zero

14When the international climate change community convened in Copenhagen in 2009, however, it was clear that carbon capture and storage was not going to be sufficient, for two reasons. First, it still did not exist. There were no carbon capture and storage facilities in operation on any coal fired power station and no prospect the technology was going to have any impact on rising emissions from increased coal use in the foreseeable future. The biggest barrier to implementation was essentially cost. The motivation to burn vast amounts of coal is to generate relatively cheap electricity. Retrofitting carbon scrubbers on existing power stations, building the infrastructure to pipe captured carbon, and developing suitable geological storage sites required huge sums of money. Consequently, the only application of carbon capture in actual operation then—and now—is to use the trapped gas in enhanced oil recovery schemes. Beyond a single demonstrator, there has never been any capture of carbon dioxide from a coal fired power station chimney with that captured carbon then being stored underground (Power Technology 2021).

15Just as important, by 2009 it was becoming increasingly clear that while emissions reductions were both technically and economically feasible, there remained a serious lack of political action. The amount of carbon dioxide being pumped into the air each year meant humanity was rapidly running out of time. With hopes for a solution to the climate crisis fading again, another magic bullet was required. A technology was needed not only to slow down the increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, but actually reverse it. In response, the climate-economic modelling community— already able to include plant-based carbon sinks and geological carbon storage in their models—increasingly adopted the “solution” of combining the two.

16So it was that Bioenergy Carbon Capture and Storage, or BECCS, rapidly emerged as the new saviour technology (Hickman 2016). By burning ‘replaceable’ biomass such as wood, crops, and agricultural waste instead of coal in power stations, and then capturing the carbon dioxide from the power station chimney and storing it underground, BECCS could produce electricity at the same time as removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. That is because as biomass such as trees grow, they suck in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. By planting trees and other bioenergy crops and storing carbon dioxide released when they are burnt, more carbon could be removed from the atmosphere. With this new solution in hand the international community regrouped from repeated failures to mount another attempt at reining in our dangerous interference with the climate. The scene was set for the crucial 2015 climate conference in Paris.

A Parisian False Dawn

17As its general secretary brought the twenty-first United Nations conference on climate change to an end, a great roar issued from the crowd. People leaped to their feet, strangers embraced, tears welled up in eyes bloodshot from lack of sleep. The emotions on display on 13 December 2015 were not just for the cameras. After weeks of gruelling high-level negotiations in Paris a breakthrough had finally been achieved.

18Against all expectations, after decades of false starts and failures, the international community had finally agreed to do what it took to limit global warming to well below 2°C, preferably to 1.5°C, compared to pre-industrial levels. The Paris Agreement was a stunning victory for those most at risk from climate change. Rich industrialised nations will be increasingly impacted as global temperatures rise. But it is the low-lying island states such as the Maldives and the Marshall Islands that are at imminent existential risk. As a later UN special report made clear, if the Paris Agreement was unable to limit global warming to 1.5°C, the number of lives lost to more intense storms, fires, heatwaves, famines and floods would significantly increase (IPCC 2018) (on the Paris agreement, also see Hannis, this volume).

  • 2  Personal communications.

19But dig a little deeper and you could find another emotion lurking within delegates on 13 December. Doubt. We struggle to name any climate scientist who at that time thought the Paris Agreement was feasible. We have since been told personally by some scientists that the Paris Agreement was “of course important for climate justice but unworkable” and “a complete shock, no one thought limiting to 1.5°C was possible”.2 Rather than being able to limit warming to 1.5°C, a senior academic involved in the IPCC concluded we were heading beyond 3°C by the end of this century. Relying on untested carbon dioxide removal mechanisms to achieve the Paris targets when we have the technologies to transition away from fossil fuels today is plain wrong and foolhardy. Instead of confronting our doubts, we scientists decided to construct ever more elaborate fantasy worlds in which we would be safe. The price to pay for our cowardice: having to keep our mouths shut about the ever-growing absurdity of the required planetary-scale carbon dioxide removal.

20Taking centre stage was BECCS because at the time this was the only way climate-economic models could find scenarios that would be consistent with the Paris Agreement. Rather than stabilise, global emissions of carbon dioxide had increased some 60 % since 1992. Alas, BECCS, just like all the previous solutions, was too good to be true. Across the scenarios produced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) with a 50 % or better chance of limiting temperature increase to 1.5°C, BECCS would need to remove billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide each year. BECCS at this scale would require massive planting schemes for trees and bioenergy crops.

  • 3  Editors’ note: whose conservation and financing is envisaged through the UN REDD+ programme (Reduc (...)

21The Earth certainly needs more trees. Humanity has cut down some three trillion since we first started farming some 13,000 years ago. But rather than allow ecosystems to recover from human impacts and forests to regrow, BECCS generally refers to dedicated industrial-scale monoculture plantations regularly harvested for bioenergy, rather than carbon stored away in forest trunks, roots and soils.3 Currently, the two most efficient biofuels are sugarcane for bioethanol and palm oil for biodiesel—both grown in the tropics (Chiriboga et al. 2020). Endless rows of such fast growing monoculture trees or other bioenergy crops harvested at frequent intervals devastate biodiversity.

22It has been estimated that BECCS could demand an area of land approaching twice the size of India (Furman et al. 2020). How will that be achieved at the same time as feeding eight to ten billion people around the middle of the century or without destroying native vegetation and biodiversity? Large-scale monoculture tree plantations can adversely impact water availability for agriculture as well as drinking. Increasing forest cover in higher latitudes can have an overall warming effect because replacing grassland or fields with forests means the land surface becomes darker (Mykleby et al. 2017). This darker land absorbs more energy from the Sun and so temperatures rise. Focusing on developing vast plantations in poorer tropical nations comes with real risks of people being driven off their lands. The massive amount of offsetting needed for most net zero scenarios with the aim of staying within safe climate limits cannot be met by leaving nature alone. It demands fast growing, mostly alien species that are cut down often and regularly, thereby releasing carbon. We are already seeing the beginning of this in European forests. The consequences of net zero can look almost as scary as those of climate warming. As these impacts are becoming better understood, the sense of optimism around BECCS has diminished.

Pipe Dreams

23Given the dawning realisation of how difficult Paris would be in the light of ever rising emissions and the limited potential of BECCS, a new buzzword emerged in policy circles: the “overshoot scenario” (Ricke et al 2017). Temperatures would be allowed to go beyond 1.5°C in the near term, but then be brought down with a range of carbon dioxide removal by the end of the century. This means that net zero actually means ‘carbon negative’. Within a few decades, we will need to transform the global economy from one that currently pumps out forty billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year, to one that produces a net removal of tens of billions. Mass tree planting, for bioenergy or as an attempt at offsetting, had been the latest attempt to stall cuts in fossil fuel use. But the ever-increasing need for carbon removal was calling for more. This is why the idea of direct air capture, now being touted by some as the most promising technology out there, has taken hold. It is generally more benign to ecosystems because it requires significantly less land to operate than BECCS, including the land needed to power them using wind or solar panels.

24Unfortunately, it is widely believed that because of its exorbitant costs and energy demand (Lebling et al. 2021), direct air capture—if it ever becomes feasible to be deployed at scale—will not be able to compete with BECCS with its voracious appetite for prime agricultural land (Hanssen et al. 2020).

25It should now be getting clear where the journey is heading. As the mirage of each magical technical solution disappears, another equally unworkable alternative pops up to take its place. The next is already on the horizon—and it is even more ghastly. Once we realise net zero will not happen in time, or even at all, geoengineering—the deliberate and large-scale intervention in the Earth’s climate system—will probably be invoked as the solution to limit temperature increases. One of the most researched geoengineering ideas is solar radiation management—the injection of millions of tons of sulphuric acid into the stratosphere that will reflect some of the Sun’s energy away from the Earth (Reynolds 2019). It is a wild idea, but some academics and politicians are deadly serious about it, despite its significant risks. The US National Academies of Sciences, for example, has recommended allocating up to US$200 million over the next five years to explore how geoengineering could be deployed and regulated. Funding and research in this area is sure to significantly increase.

26It is astonishing how the continual absence of any credible carbon removal technology never seems to affect net zero policies. Whatever is thrown at it, net zero carries on without a dent in the fender. The argument appears to be that net zero technologies will work because they have to work. But beyond fine words and glossy brochures there is nothing there. The emperor has no clothes.

Difficult Truths

27In principle there is nothing wrong or dangerous about carbon dioxide removal proposals. In fact developing ways of reducing concentrations of carbon dioxide can feel tremendously exciting. You are using science and engineering to save humanity from disaster. What you are doing is important. There is also the realisation that carbon removal will be needed to mop up some of the emissions from sectors such as aviation and cement production. So there will be some small role for a number of different carbon dioxide removal approaches. The problems come when it is assumed that these can be deployed at a vast scale. This effectively serves as a blank cheque for the continued burning of fossil fuels and the acceleration of habitat destruction.

28Carbon reduction technologies and geoengineering should be seen as a sort of ejector seat that could propel humanity away from rapid and catastrophic environmental change. Just like an ejector seat in a jet aircraft, it should only be used as the very last resort. But policymakers and businesses appear to be entirely serious about deploying highly speculative technologies as a way to land our civilisation at a sustainable destination when these are no more than fairytales. The only sure way to keep humanity safe is the immediate and sustained radical cuts to greenhouse gas emissions in a socially and economically just way.

29Academics typically see themselves as serving society. Those working at the climate science and policy interface desperately wrestle with an increasingly difficult problem. Similarly, those that champion net zero as a way of breaking through the barriers holding back effective action on the climate also work with the very best of intentions. This was certainly the motivation of a key group of international academics and activists that can be seen as one of the important centres for the emergence of the net zero concept (Darby 2019). This important work was designed around ways to accelerate actual mitigation that would be required in order to limit warming to well below 2°C. The tragedy is that their collective efforts were never able to mount an effective challenge to a climate policy process that would only allow a narrow range of scenarios to be explored.

30Most scientists feel distinctly uncomfortable stepping over the invisible line that separates their day job from wider social and political concerns. There are genuine fears that being seen as advocates for or against particular issues could threaten their perceived independence. Scientists inhabit a largely trusted profession. Trust is very hard to build and easy to destroy.

  • 4  Editors’ note: It is also alarming to observe the proliferation of this ‘netting’ fantasy into oth (...)

31But there is another invisible line, the one that separates academic integrity and self-censorship. As scientists, we are taught to be sceptical, to subject hypotheses to rigorous tests and interrogation. But when it comes to perhaps the greatest challenge humanity faces, we often show a dangerous lack of critical analysis. In private, scientists express significant scepticism about the Paris Agreement, BECCS, offsetting, geoengineering and net zero. Apart from some notable exceptions, in public we quietly go about our work, apply for funding, publish papers and teach (Anderson 2015). The path to disastrous climate change is paved with feasibility studies and impact assessments. Rather than acknowledge the seriousness of our situation, we instead continue to participate in the fantasy of net zero.4 What will we do when reality bites? What will we say to our friends and loved ones about our failure to speak out now?

32The youth of today and future generation will look back in horror that our generation gambled with catastrophic changes in climate and biodiversity for the sake of cheap fossil fuel energy when cost effective and socially acceptable alternatives were available. We have the knowledge needed to act. The most recent IPCC and IPBES assessments clearly show we are failing to meet any of the agreed targets for limiting climate change or loss of biodiversity.

33The time has come to voice our fears and be honest with wider society. Current net zero policies will not keep warming to within 1.5°C because they were never intended to. They were and still are driven by a need to protect business as usual for as long as possible, not the climate. If we want to keep people safe then large and sustained cuts to carbon emissions need to happen now. That is the very simple acid test that must be applied to all climate policies and it needs to be solidly on the negotiating table at COP26. The time for wishful thinking is over.



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1  Editors’ note: see

2  Personal communications.

3  Editors’ note: whose conservation and financing is envisaged through the UN REDD+ programme (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries), see

4  Editors’ note: It is also alarming to observe the proliferation of this ‘netting’ fantasy into other areas of environmental management. In conceiving of so-called ‘natural capital’ in aggregate, for example (cf. Helm 2015), a fairytale can be sustained in which biodiversity will gain from its measurable harm in the course of development, so as to produce a ‘no net loss’ or ‘net gain’ in biodiversity ‘units’, even though losses have occurred (for a critical engagement with aggregate thinking in environmental governance, see Sullivan 2017).


Senior Lecturer in Global Systems at the University of Exeter where he serves as the Assistant Director for the Global Systems Institute and programme director for the MSc Global Sustainability Solutions. He has previously held visiting positions at the Earth-Life Systems Institute at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, and the School of Geography at the University of Southampton. He is an environmental columnist for UK newspaper the i. His book Fire, Storm & Flood: The Violence of Climate Change (2021) is published by Head of Zeus / Bloomsbury. More details can be found at

Senior Researcher in the Department of Physical Geography and Ecosystem Science, Lund University. A physicist by training, he has published extensively on a broad range of climate and climate impacts research, including the global carbon cycle, climate impacts on terrestrial ecosystems, fire ecology, plant physiology, soil science, land surface-atmosphere feedbacks, and forestry for climate mitigation. He led a research group at the Max-Planck-Institutes for Meteorology and Biogeochemistry, served as the Deputy Leader of a major UK Earth system modeling research programme, and served for many years as editor for the American Physical Union, and as advisor to the European Commission and the European Space Agency.

Emeritus Professor at the University of East Anglia. Robert is a physical chemist specialising in atmospheric science issues and a leading authority on the science of climate change due to human activity. His career spans research and advisory roles, including key roles with NASA, as a science policy adviser to US President Bill Clinton, and at the World Bank. For the UK government, Robert was Chief Scientific Adviser to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. He has served as Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Inter Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity Ecosystem Services (IPBES).

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