Nations and businesses ‘hiding behind net-zero smokescreen’, Oxfam warns

Governments and corporates are relying too much on 'unproven and unrealistic' carbon removal and offsetting schemes in order to reach net-zero targets, with a new report from Oxfam warning that a land area five times the size of India would be required to create new forests for these measures.

Nations and businesses ‘hiding behind net-zero smokescreen’, Oxfam warns

With only seven harvests left to reach these goals, it is clear that businesses will have a key role to play in protecting and restoring the planet.

Oxfam’s new report, released today (3 August), claims that nations and businesses that have set net-zero targets are failing to deliver coherent plans that would deliver rapid decarbonisation, with many instead relying on unrealistic land-based carbon removal scenarios such as tree planting.

The report warns that at least 1.6 billion hectares of new forests – equivalent to five times the size of India and more than all the existing farmland globally – would be required to enable nations and businesses to meet their net-zero commitments through offsetting and carbon sequestration.

A separate Oxfam report states that global food prices have increased by 40% in the past year, pushing more than 20 million people into “catastrophic conditions of hunger” and creating a six-fold increase in famine-like conditions. The charity argues that land-based carbon removal methods could cause food prices to grow by 80% by 2050, pushing even more people into cases of hunger.

Oxfam GB’s chief executive Danny Sriskandarajah said: “Too many companies and governments are hiding behind the smokescreen of net-zero to continue dirty business-as-usual activities.

“The net-zero goal enshrined in the Paris Agreement is vital to tackling climate change – and some governments and companies are taking bold action to cut carbon emissions – but there are currently too few to give us a realistic chance of averting climate catastrophe and the widespread hunger and devastation that comes with it.

“The UK Government needs to be a credible broker for a deal that can stop the planet overheating when it hosts the COP26 climate talks in November – so it is imperative that it stops licensing new oil and gas in the North Sea, including a possible new oilfield near the Shetland Islands.”

Ludicrous amounts of land

The Oxfam report highlights efforts to decarbonise in the oil and gas sector. The report claims that the sector is relying on “unrealistic carbon removal schemes that require ludicrous amounts of land”.

It claims that net-zero targets set by the likes of BP, Eni, Shell and Total could require an area of land more than twice the size of the UK to be reforested by 2050. If the entire energy sector were to set similar targets, a land area the size of the Amazon rainforest would be required – equivalent to a third of all farmland globally.

Data from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns that emissions must have been reduced by at least 45% by 2030 compared to 2010 levels to put the world on course to alleviate the worst impacts of the climate crisis. However, current plans from nations to collectively cut emissions would total a 1% reduction in emissions by 2030, according to the most recent stocktake.

A little over half of the world’s nations have submitted updated climate action plans ahead of the crucial climate summit in Glasgow later this year, with the UK now pressing for the likes of China and India to outline decarbonisation plans.

Many of the nations that have submitted updated climate action plans are still overtly relying on carbon removal schemes. Even a country the size of Switzerland, for example, would require land equivalent to the size of Puerto Rico to meet a net-zero target, according to the report. Switzerland has notably struck offset deals with the likes of Peru and Ghana.

At a corporate level, more than 20% of the world’s largest 2,000 publicly listed companies have net-zero goals that, according to Oxfam, are dependent upon land-based carbon sinks.

The global market for voluntary offsetting has been growing exponentially for more than a decade. Just 8.8 million tonnes of CO2e were covered in 2006 but, by 2017, the figure stood at 62.7 million tonnes. But the publication of the IPCC’s landmark report on global warming in 2018 – the science behind the global appetite for net-zero by 2050 – accelerated this trend. By late 2019, some NGOs and businesses offering carbon credits were reporting a tenfold increase in interest from businesses.

edie recently explored how businesses can avoid greenwash when attempting to incorporate offsetting as part of net-zero strategies. Read the feature here.

Matt Mace

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