Net Zero Festival brings accusations of greenwash


Climate breakdown cannot be a niche issue - it has to be a priority for us all. So we should welcome the Net Zero Festival, run by BusinessGreen, as an attempt to wake up mainstream businesses to the necessity of rapid transition to net zero carbon. As exemplified by sponsors… 

...Heathrow, Drax, Shell?

Hang on. Finding these names among the sponsors, one can hardly fail to notice that they are hardly companies usually held up as examples of climate leaders. What is going on? Is Shell switching from oil and gas to renewables and we somehow missed the announcement? 

Unfortunately not. What Shell actually produced earlier this year is a ‘net zero carbon plan’. This promises to cut a small part of the company’s own emissions (those unrelated to burning the oil and gas it extracts) to net zero by 2050 by offsetting. As for the majority of Shell’s emissions which come from customers burning its product, there is no target to reduce total emissions, let alone reduce oil and gas production. Instead, Shell promises to reduce ‘carbon intensity’ by two thirds. This could be by increasing production of renewable energy and biofuels alongside oil and gas, and also offsetting. It further promises to work with customers who burn its product to ensure they capture the carbon or offset emissions.

Interesting. However, notable by their absence from Shell's plan are any proposals to stop exploring for new oil and gas; to halt new extraction; to phase out production in the short or long term; or to invest in a just transition for workers. Before the pandemic, Shell was planning more than 35 new oil and gas projects by 2025. Half of the 24 “major projects” in its investment profile are deep water oil and gas projects, which it says have “significant growth potential.”

To have any chance of keeping within 1.5C of warming, it’s not just coal which must stay in the ground: oil and gas use must also fall significantly in the coming decade. This means along with energy efficiency, a mass transfer of investment into renewable energy. A real transition away from fossil fuels, not just a cosmetic add-on while Shell and other oil companies keep drilling and laying down new gas pipelines. If Shell’s answer to the climate crisis is to rely on either carbon capture and storage technology unproven at scale or carbon offsetting (often highly problematic) , then perhaps they are asking the wrong question.

Shell is a formidable political lobbyist. It was recently revealed that Shell and BP, despite parting company with some industry groups over climate change, have continued as active members of at least eight trade organisations lobbying against climate measures in the US and Australia.

There's more detail on Shell's greenwash here and an overview of the gap between climate rhetoric and action for the eight biggest oil companies here.

Drax is another fossil fuel company making a surprising appearance on the sponsors list. Last year, Drax obtained planning consent to replace its coal power units (to be mothballed by 2022) with a massive 3.6-Gigawatt new gas capacity, far larger than any gas power plant ever built in this country, and three times the size of the coal units being replaced. Drax also owns four gas power stations with a combined capacity of more than 2 gigawatts as well as planning consents for four other new gas power plants. 

Four of the six units in Drax power station have been converted from coal burning to burn wood pellets, attracting £789.5 million (£2.1 million every day) in renewable electricity subsidies during 2019. But burning more wood than the UK produces every year is by no means ‘green’. Per unit of electricity, biomass emits more CO2 from smokestacks than burning coal does. In theory this is then taken up by forest regrowth. But because this process takes decades or even centuries, scientists have warned “Even if forests are allowed to regrow, using wood deliberately harvested for burning will increase carbon in the atmosphere and warming for decades to centuries as many studies have shown even when wood replaces coal, oil or natural gas. The reasons are fundamental and occur regardless of whether forest management is ‘sustainable’.” 

Drax’s single biggest external pellet supplier is Enviva. Enviva has come under heavy criticism from US environmental NGOs for regularly sourcing wood from clearcut coastal hardwood forests – many of them biodiverse swamp or wetland forests – as well as contributing to environmental injustice by siting its pellet facilities in places already exposed to high levels of industrial pollution and social deprivation. (more on Drax)

But what of Drax’s plans to capture its carbon? The idea of burning biofuels and capturing the resultant carbon has been posed as a way of removing vast amounts of carbon from the atmosphere - in some proposals as much as 10 billion tonnes of CO2 every year. Could this really be done on a massive scale, with emissions from growing, transporting and processing the bioenergy kept low, and with safe permanent storage for the carbon? There are huge question marks over its feasibility (read more here and here).

Last but not least in this trio of proud sponsors is Heathrow, which due to a court judgement is currently down (but not necessarily out) in the long running battle with local residents and climate activists over their plan for a third runway which would mean 700 extra flights every single day. 

In December 2018, Heathrow published a “carbon neutral growth roadmap”. Since flying is energy-intensive, inequitable (an estimated 70% of flights in this country are taken by 15% of adults) and notoriously difficult to decarbonise, common sense would suggest that we should not be encouraging even further expansion, but looking to manage demand. So claims of ‘carbon neutral growth’ by expansionist Heathrow are bound to be met with scepticism. 

Looking into this in more detail, the Aviation Environment Federation point out that the ‘roadmap’ will in fact require almost no action from Heathrow, instead relying on airlines to develop more efficient aircraft, biofuels and offsetting through CORSIA. More worryingly, all these measures have major flaws. 

Firstly, techno-fixes are of limited scope. No electric aircraft big enough to carry passengers for short-haul flights are anticipated until around 2055. Changes in airspace use could reduce emissions slightly but these are generally used to facilitate air traffic growth. 

As for biofuels, they face an insurmountable problem of scale. With cropland already under worrying pressure to produce biofuels for road transport, the land just doesn’t exist to power the world’s flights with biofuels as well. Palm oil is cheap, easy to process, and available in large quantities, but is a leading cause of deforestation, both directly and indirectly by displacing farming.

And the aviation industry’s CORSIA scheme combines all the general flaws of carbon offsetting (see here and here) with additional problems from being designed only as a partial scheme with conspicuous loopholes such as including some fossil fuels as 'green' (more detail here). 

The problems with offsetting are worth going into in more detail. If a tonne of CO2 is emitted and another tonne of emissions prevented elsewhere, then that still leaves us with a tonne more CO2 in the atmosphere than there should be, not zero. In fact, it’s even worse with aviation since there is additional warming from ‘non-CO2 effects’ of gases emitted at altitude. So it may be closer to two tonnes CO2 equivalent anyway. What about planting trees instead? That may work but as the scale of these interventions is increased, the risks increase that they will have unintended consequences for biodiversity and human rights, in the form of land grabs in the Global South for monoculture tree plantations  

And since all nations are supposed to be reducing their greenhouse gas emissions, how do we know that the offset emissions are ‘additional’ to those plans? Research in 2016 found that perhaps just 2% of United Nations offset projects resulted in an actual additional emissions reduction.  

Given all this, the obvious conclusion is that Heathrow’s priority is as it always has been, expansion and not tackling climate change: the latter is just a figleaf for the former. Giving Heathrow a platform to pose as a climate leader reinforces the dangerous myth that there is such a thing as ‘sustainable aviation growth’. 

Airport expansion (not just at Heathrow, but around the country) can be compatible with ‘net zero’. But only if ‘net zero’ actually means relying on unproven technologies on a vast scale to suck carbon out of the atmosphere because we failed to take action to cut emissions. Sadly, among many scientists and climate activists, suspicion is growing that this is exactly what ‘net zero’ does mean. 

Doing something to cut emissions is better than doing nothing, doing a lot is better. However, in the context of climate crisis it is an unfortunate truth that plans can be  both ‘groundbreaking’ and ‘ambitious’ and yet also ‘wholly inadequate’.  We cannot afford greenwash to blind us to the fact that many ‘net zero’ plans and climate action plans from corporations, and worse, governments, are way off anything that could keep us within 1.5C warming. For companies like Heathrow and Shell, they are a cover for carrying on with business largely as usual.

The organisers of the Net Zero Festival surely have the best of intentions to urge businesses to act on the climate crisis. But they need to take a long hard look at who they are giving a platform to, and whether the solutions being promoted will really save us.