In the midst of virtual discussions of the UN climate treaty, a new report shines a light on how polluting industries are pushing a “net zero” agenda to becomethe presumed centrepiece of global climate plans and how the details in these plans (should any be included) delay action and don’t add up.
—The report is embedded at the bottom of this story.—
The report, entitled, “The Big Con: How Big Polluters are advancing a “net zero” climate agenda to delay, deceive, and deny,” comes following a year packed with record announcements of “net zero” pledges from corporations and governments, and builds on a growing body of research that calls the integrity of “net zero” as a political goal into serious question. As more and more “net zero” plans have been rolled out, the scientific, academic and activist communities have all raised grave concerns about the inability of these plans to achieve the commitments of the Paris Agreement and keep global temperature rise to below 1.5 degrees Celsius.
“The Big Con” joins a series of recent reports in uncovering the dubious arithmetic, vague targets and often unachievable technological aspirations of these “net zero” plans, analysing plans from a number of key polluting industries including the fossil fuel and energy, aviation, technology, retail, finance, and agriculture industries. It also includes an in-depth look at some of the strategies these industries have deployed to ensure their “net zero” agenda becomes the primary dogma of the global response to the climate crisis.
Some of the key findings highlighted in the report include:
By 2030, Shell alone plans to purchase more offsets to compensate for its emissions every year than were available in the entire global voluntary carbon offset market capacity in 2019.
United Airlines is counting on using a geoengineering technology that is not developed at any viable commercial scale to suck carbon out of the air and pump it into the ground (a process that is intended to extract even more oil in hard-to-reach places). If the same geoengineering plants were to be built to offset the world’s emissions in 2019, this would require 4 million acres of land—approximately the size of the country of Belize.
Walmart’s climate plan entirely neglects its value chain emissions, which account for an estimated 95 percent of the corporation’s carbon footprint.
Eni is planning on increasing its oil and gas production over the coming years, a feat that the corporation proposes to offset through reforestation schemes that have been described as fake forests.
BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, has pledged to reach “net zero” emissions in its portfolio by 2050. But despite pledging in 2020 to sell off most of its fossil fuel shares “in the near future”, it still owns US$85 billion in coal assets due to a loophole in its policy.
JBS’ commitment to eliminate deforestation in its supply chain by 2035 in effect means it will continue contributing to deforestation for the next 14 years (until 2035), instead of immediately ending the deforestation associated with its supply chain—arguably one of the most effective and quickest ways for JBS to decrease its emissions.
Big Polluters, including the aviation and fossil fuel industries lobbied massively to help ensure the passage of a tax credit in the US, called 45Q, that subsidises carbon capture and storage. Those same corporations are likely to have raked in millions from the credit, despite not having the right systems in place to qualify.
The International Emissions Trading Association, perhaps the largest global lobbyist on market and offsets (both pillars of polluters’ “net zero” climate plans”) has leveraged its outsized presence at international climate talks to advance its agenda over others.
Corporations have made massive financial contributions to renowned academic institutions including the Massachusetts Institute for Technology, Princeton University, Stanford University and Imperial College London to shape and influence the type of “net zero” related research these institutions pursue.
In one example, Exxon Mobil retained the right to formally review research before it is completed and in some cases to plant its own staff on project development teams at Stanford’s Global Climate and Energy Project.
The report was released in a press briefing during the virtual discussions of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). UN Secretary General and the COP presidency, who are organisers of the next milestone in the UNFCCC process COP26, have already made “net zero” a primary focus despite a number of recent controversies including the recent backlash against Mark Carney’s initiative.
Quotes from authors:
Sara Shaw, Friends of the Earth International, Climate Justice & Energy program co-coordinator:
“This report shows that ‘net zero’ plans from big polluters are nothing more than a big con. The reality is that corporations like Shell have no interest in genuinely acting to solve the climate crisis by reducing their emissions from fossil fuels. They instead plan to continue business as usual while greenwashing their image with tree planting and offsetting schemes that can never ever make up for digging up and burning fossil fuels. We must wake up fast to the fact that we are falling for a trick. Net zero risks obscuring a lack of action until it is too late.”
Rachel Rose Jackson, Director of Climate Policy and Research, Corporate Accountability:
“After The Big Con, it’s hard not to see the recent fervour over ‘net zero’ as anything but a scheme propped up by Big Polluters that’s way too little, way too late,” said Rachel Rose Jackson of Corporate Accountability, “These players stacked the deck to make sure the world would hinge its hopes on plans that are nothing more than greenwashing. If we don’t course correct now, the world will be on the fast track to climate destruction incompatible with life as we know it.”
Coraina De la Plaza, Climate Campaigner, Global Forest Coalition:
“We are deeply concerned about the corporate capture of climate policies and finance, and the growing nexus between governments and corporations to promote false solutions through Net Zero and ambiguous concepts like NBS. Instead of deep emissions cuts, they continue to pursue ‘green’ neocolonial offsetting schemes to reap more profits and pollute through forest offsets, afforestation, reforestation, tree plantations, and dangerous techno-fixes. This Net Zero circus has to stop: the planet and people need real and ambitious targets and commitments, real emissions cuts, and real zero targets.”
Quotes from endorsing organisations:
Meena Raman, Third World Network:
“As big polluters hide behind false claims of supporting climate action, they are planning to do more damage by pushing carbon offset projects in developing countries, leading to more forest and land grabs. Such efforts promote climate injustice and will impact the poor communities and indigenous peoples in the Global South. This has to stop.”
Pascoe Sabido, Researcher and Campaigner, Corporate Europe Observatory:
“Europe’s biggest fossil fuel companies are using their flimsy ‘net-zero’ plans to curry favour with our decision makers. But in exchange for their hollow commitments, Shell, BP and others have successfully lobbied for financial and regulatory support for techno-fixes like carbon capture and storage or fossil-hydrogen, which will allow them to dig up and sell yet more oil and gas. An utter climate catastrophe. Net zero is nothing more than a massive con, letting the EU and its polluting corporations to talk the talk while walking in the opposite direction.”
Akinbode Oluwafemi, Executive Director, Corporate Accountability and Public Participation Africa:
“The Big Con” is not only timely, it also reinforces what we have been saying for years. The fossil fuel industry is not about to repent. Net Zero is a scam intended to keep us in a state of suspended animation while for the industry, it is business as usual.”
Lidy Nacpil, Coordinator of the Asian Peoples Movement on Debt and Development:
“Proclamations of Net Zero targets are dangerous deceptions. Net Zero sounds ambitious and visionary but it actually allows big polluters and rich governments to continue emitting GHGs which they claim will be erased through unproven and dangerous technologies, carbon trading, and offsets that shift the burden of climate action to the Global South. Big polluters and rich governments should not only reduce emissions to Real Zero, they must pay reparations for the huge climate debt owed to the Global South.”
Trusha Reddy, Programme Head: Women Building Power for Energy & Climate Justice, WoMin African Alliance:
“Net Zero is just the latest attempt by corporates and colluding governments in the Global North to undermine real action on the climate crisis. It follows (and includes) decades of different variations of big cons from outright denial to carbon markets and a slew of other false solutions pushed out by public relations machines and strong arming of the big economies. What cannot be avoided, and is becoming a permanent reality are the cyclones, wildfires and a multitude of other climate related disasters impacting regions like Africa with the fiercest intensity. As our world gets pummelled by these forces, impacted women and others in the Global South are starting to make the connections, pierce the veil, demand climate justice, and rise up to claim real zero solutions.”
A California public advocacy group is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to answer a specific question — Can private parties impacted by a private company with a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) sue those licensees in federal court? The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that such claims could only be brought before the NRC itself even though the agency is not equipped to handle those kinds of claims. The attorney for Public Watchdogs, Chuck La Bella, says, “The Ninth Circuit’s reasoning in effect slams the courthouse door on private parties’ claims in court against NRC license holders, no matter how egregious their conduct may be.”
If that decision is upheld, advocates say potentially life-threatening and environmentally damaging practices could go unchecked. La Bella believes the court made a misstep that could have sweeping implications for future cases. “If used as a precedent, the circuit court decision effectively strips federal district courts of all jurisdiction over private litigation against any company covered by a NRC license.”
The issue evolved as Public Watchdogs pushed for the safe storage of spent nuclear waste during the decommissioning process at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) in California. The group petitioned the NRC to stop the work of a private company, Holtec International, at SONGS but the agency denied the request.
Separately, the group also filed suit against Holtec and the operators of SONGS.
The nonprofit called into question Holtec’s disposal practices and the operators’ oversight of Holtec during the plant’s decommissioning. The group asked for a work stoppage, based on concerns about the methods used to move and bury millions of pounds of deadly radioactive waste and the integrity of the “thin-walled” canisters the company used to store it. However, the district court said it could not hear their claims. The Ninth Circuit agreed, shutting down the challenge without even looking at the merit of the argument. It ruled that federal courts didn’t have jurisdiction over the case.
Citing the Hobbs Act, the circuit court said that the only way the group could challenge the actions of any company that holds a NRC license is before the NRC itself. Attorneys for Public Watchdogs claim the district court and the Ninth Circuit misinterpreted the purpose of the Hobbs Act and ignored the precedents of multiple circuit court decisions, as well as those of the Supreme Court, that have allowed for review in federal court. “If the Hobbs Act is allowed to swallow up all viable claims against companies that fall under the umbrella of a NRC license, then effectively those companies charged with our nation’s health and safety are accountable to no one,” says attorney Chuck La Bella.
This legal question could have important environmental, public health and safety implications for affected citizens as well as the states that house 70 nuclear power plants around the country. The states have mounting caches of spent nuclear fuel stockpiled on their land and no long-term plan for removing or storing the waste. The Attorney Generals in more than a dozen states have called into question the experience, transparency and resources of the same private company tapped to perform the decommissioning process in California. Attorneys General from states such as New York and Washington have voiced their concerns directly to the NRC about its approval of various licenses granted to Holtec. When the NRC failed to act, many states followed with lawsuits.
At least one group of environmental advocates is writing an amicus brief in support of having the Supreme Court hear this pressing legal question that has critical public health and safety implications nationwide. Other entities and states may follow. La Bella says, “If the Hobbs Act precludes district courts from hearing private party litigation, then a host of suits aimed at protecting the public’s health and safety may be barred wholesale. We hope the highest court in the land will send the issue back to the ninth circuit for another look.”
When organizing around climate change in the 2000s, DenHerder-Thomas noticed a false narrative of conflict between local economic opportunity and reducing carbon emissions. In this early work, DenHerder-Thomas realized the value of community involvement and local ownership in climate change mitigation.
If we don’t focus on approaches to addressing climate change that are really putting people at the center, that are ensuring that there is wealth creation, job creation, and really a sense of like autonomy and ownership by people and by communities over this really massive transition, people aren’t going to be really bought in
This awareness led DenHerder-Thomas to Cooperative Energy Futures.
Cooperative Energy Futures
DenHerder-Thomas is co-founder and general manager of Cooperative Energy Futures (CEF), a cooperatively-owned community solar developer. Cooperative Energy Futures incorporated as a 308B cooperative in 2009 and has since become a leader in community-driven clean energy solutions.
Cooperative Energy Futures has found success in Minnesota’s community solar program, which launched in 2014. In the last three years, says DenHerder-Thomas, CEF has installed eight community solar gardens in Minnesota with an accumulated seven megawatts of capacity. 800 households have subscribed and get credits for the electricity from these gardens on their electric bills.
A board of directors, who are elected by co-op members, make all of the decisions for Cooperative Energy Futures. This democratic process is very important to DenHerder-Thomas, though he hopes for more direct participation from members in the future.
People’s Solar Energy Fund
Financing is a challenge for Cooperative Energy Futures and other small-scale solar developers. Larger solar gardens are eligible for a larger tax credit, but these credits only apply to passive incomes that non-profit and cooperative developers do not have. Large investors must then step in and pay for the garden to take advantage of the credits. However, private equity investors are not interested in solar gardens under five megawatts, says DenHerder-Thomas. The challenge is then for community-based groups to reach that scale.
Investors also have an outsized influence on small solar developers with few other options. If an investor asks for a heightened return on their investment, the developer will need to charge more for the electricity from the garden and the energy will be less cost competitive. At the same time, if the developer is unable to capture the tax credit, the electricity will be more expensive.
The People’s Solar Energy Fund is pooling smaller, community-focused developers together to reach the scale needed to secure lower borrowing rates from investors. Groups involved in the People’s Solar Energy Fund also share their expertise and experience with others that are just getting started.
It’s a combination of getting to scale, having the expertise and the technical assistance to make a project ready for financing, and having more leverage because we’re organizing a market.
Scaling Up for a Substantial Impact
Given the right resources, DenHerder-Thomas believes that Cooperative Energy Futures could easily install 30 or 50 megawatts of solar each year. In addition, he says that hundreds of groups could get to where CEF is right now, given the right technical and policy support.
Scaling up community-driven solar is important not just for clean energy generation, but also in transitioning to a more democratic energy system.
I think it can dramatically transform both how communities can own energy on the scale of tens of gigawatts in the timeframe of five to 10 years from now. And even more importantly, I think it can transform how a critical mass of the American people think about renewable energy.
How can people help? Individuals in Minnesota, says DenHerder-Thomas, can become members and subscribers to Cooperative Energy Futures. For those outside Minnesota, groups like Co-op Power and the People Power Solar Co-op do similar work.
DenHerder-Thomas also hopes for nation-wide policies supporting community solar and incentives for projects that serve marginalized groups.
How do you start to scale those incentives so that there’s higher incentives for projects that are community-based, community owned, support low-income communities and communities of color? Really start to… I think of it as almost like, level the playing field, given the long histories of economic and racial injustice in this country. So that it’s not just all flowing towards the big corporate players.
For this episode of the Local Energy Rules podcast, host John Farrell of the ILSR speaks with Cisco DeVries, CEO of OhmConnect. OhmConnect tracks its California customers’ energy use and rewards them for saving energy when the electric grid is under stress. Farrell and DeVries discuss OhmConnect’s innovative approach to demand response, the 550 megawatt Resi-Station “virtual power plant,” and the potential for a similar approach across the nation.