Let’s be realistic about achieving net zero

Robert Thompson
4 min readDec 27, 2020


The Earth does not belong to us: we belong to the Earth — Marlee Matlin

Carbon neutrality, or having a net zero carbon footprint, refers to achieving net zero carbon dioxide emissions by balancing carbon emissions with carbon removal (often through carbon offsetting) or simply eliminating carbon emissions altogether (the transition to the “post-carbon economy”). In this post I argue that for a successful response to climate change, reality must take precedence over PR. Hitting these goals may be impossible for an economy based on mass consumption.

Net zero by 2050

If we remember Theresa May at all it will mainly be for mucking up Brexit. Little wonder that when she announced what was leaving office she devoted her last weeks dreaming up new policies. She probably hoped that this would give us something else for us to remember her by. She announced that her legacy list of policies would include an amendment to the Climate Change Act 2008. This would need the UK to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. Any emissions after that date would have to be offset by removing a corresponding amount of CO2 from the atmosphere. For example, by planting trees. The amendment will raise the bar from the current target of an 80% cut. It will also make Britain the first country to set a long-term climate target that is legally binding.

You can hear how difficult this would be to achieve from this podcast.

Climate change

This announcement came not a moment too soon. Extreme weather is usually seen as a product of climate change. But it is also becoming a significant driver of the crisis, a new report suggests. In its annual review of global energy trends, BP calculates that global demand for energy grew by 2.9% last year. And this is the biggest rise since 2010.

A significant factor in this was the number of much colder and hotter days than normal. This led to a greater use of air conditioners, fans and heaters. As a result of this extra energy usage, carbon emissions rose by 2%. This was a faster rise than in any year since 2011. It is roughly the carbon equivalent of having 400 million more cars on the roads. Spencer Dale, the company’s chief economist, warned of a worrying vicious cycle:

  • increasing levels of carbon emissions leading to more extreme weather patterns,
  • which in turn trigger stronger growth in energy and carbon emissions.

While the report acknowledges the extraordinary growth in renewable energy (up 14.5% last year) it argues that to tackle climate change we must find ways of making fossil fuels less damaging. The oil and gas multinational has called for countries to:

  • switch from coal-generated power to gas (which produces fewer emissions), and
  • for more government investment in carbon capture technology. This would cut the emissions from the flues of power plants before they reach the air.

The cleaning of the British economy

We can trace the cleaning of the British economy to the introduction of the EUs landmark 2007 climate targets. These boosted renewables while reducing energy consumption and the production of greenhouse gases. Their impact has been dramatic:

  • a decade ago, 80% of UK electricity came from fossil fuels;
  • now around half comes from low-carbon sources (renewables and nuclear), and
  • UK demand for electricity is falling.

The problem net zero

The problem with trying to move to net zero is that no one is quite sure how well do it. There’s no consensus on a way forward. Even if the technical challenges are overcome, it would mean a host of green taxes and other compromises, sacrifices and lifestyle changes. Is the British public ready for

  • more nuclear power stations,
  • more expensive flights,
  • higher energy prices and
  • less money for the NHS?

That is what hitting net zero involves.

The UK contributes just 1% of global emissions. May somehow seems to think that if we take the lead, the rest of the world will gasp in admiration and follow suit. It won’t. There’s no way China, India and the US will give up cheap carbon. As it is, we’re only able to lower our own emissions because we outsource so much manufacturing abroad. This is where labour is cheap and items are usually produced with electricity supplied through coal.

For an accurate figure of Britain’s emissions, we should include the consumption of goods produced overseas. As our consumption has increased enormously over the past 30 years, this carbon addition will be large. It is a nonsense for rich countries, therefore, to pretend they are cutting carbon emissions. A British child during their lifetime may produce at least 200 times more carbon than a poor African child. And it is the poor child who will suffer first from climate change. However, for a successful response to climate change, reality must take precedence over PR. After all, hitting these goals may be impossible for an economy based on mass consumption.

In other words: we can’t cheat nature.

Photo by NOAA on Unsplash



Robert Thompson

Big ideas and important articles. Writing to help you make sense of the world. And cope with being human.