Climate Change

Is net-zero concept zeroing in on climate change? A sustainable consumption critique

Increasing demand for resources and energy-intensive lifestyles make it nearly impossible for technological fixes to reduce carbon emissions

By Soumyajit Bhar
Published: Tuesday 03 August 2021

The world has seen a massive surge in voluntary commitment to achieve net-zero targets by governments and corporations to keep global temperature rise under 1.5 degree Celsius.

The strategy has so far managed to draw the attention of the world’s major market players. Naturally, there is a sense of optimism, and many reckon that this could prove to be the ‘magic bullet’ for climate change everyone was desperately waiting for.

In simple words, net-zero refers to the balance between the amount of greenhouse gas (GHG) produced and the amount removed from the atmosphere. We reach net-zero when the amount we add is no more than the amount taken away.

However, there is a temporal lag between the emission and sequestration of GHGs: They are not done by the same actor (be it an industry or individual).

Market-based arrangements connect the dots between emitters and sequesters, as conceptualised through the idea of carbon offsets.

Climate scientists and activists have critiqued the net-zero concept as it relies excessively on nature-based and technological solutions for carbon removal and sequestration. Therefore, it disincentivises solutions that could lower actual carbon emissions through demand-side interventions.

Naturally, the larger socio-cultural critique of various nature-based solutions — particularly their implementation in the global south — are not considered enough.

This burn-now-pay-later strategy, therefore, promotes a reckless dependence on technological salvation, without delineating possible pathways towards lessening demand and consequently, emissions.

In reality, postponing actual reduction in emission makes us vulnerable: By allowing enough time for positive feedback, we tip the climatic balance beyond the threshold of “absolute no return.” By delaying action, we are letting a ticking time bomb explode.

Beyond these pertinent critiques of net-zero, I would pose a borrowed critique from Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Can the prevailing market fundamentalism solve a problem it has given rise to in the first place. Isn’t it a tautology of the highest order that is bound to fail in actuality?

The strategy simply fails to address the root cause of climate crisis; it does not say much on ways to tackle the increasing demand for consumer goods and services and how to address the current dependency of our economies on insatiable consumer demand.

Neo-liberal economic models prevailing across economies are oriented solely towards the notion of ‘growthism’ – a drive towards infinite growth of economies fueled by the ever-increasing consumer want. Consumer demand is considered sacrosanct, which naturally reflects in ways subsequent policies are designed.

The idea of ‘growthism’ is based on a clearly misplaced belief that growth will take care of all concerns regarding just distribution. This belief is oblivious to the fact that infinite growth in a finite planet is a sheer impossibility. Klein rightly says our economic system and planetary system are now at war and clearly, the need of the hour is a radical reorientation of economic system away from this mindless ‘growthism’.

That is a herculean task undoubtedly, and unless a systematic approach — such as doughnut, degrowth or steady-state economic model — is carefully delineated, we may run into a recession.

Growth is the oxygen of the current neo-liberal economic model. It is natural that when faced with any major crisis, individuals are likely to curb their wants and resort only to fulfilling their needs.

This will cut the supply of ‘oxygen’ to the economies, pushing them into recession. We are witnessing precisely this during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.

Economists across the world have stressed the need to restore consumer demands for economies to get back on their feet. The net-zero strategy, therefore, is a double-whammy, as not only does it shift our attention away from emission reduction, but also uses the same neo-liberal economic arrangement to solve the climate crisis.

Thus, net-zero targets would never allow us to address the root cause and demand a radical economic reorientation.

The net-zero strategy, as discussed, emphasises the use of carbon offsets and large corporations diverting their investments, making carbon offsets a multibillion dollar market. The growth of carbon offsets market would make the use of carbon offsets more popular among individuals.

So the wide use of carbon offsets at the individual level will also have far-reaching and serious consequences. Individuals, through their conception of a good life, appropriate larger macroeconomic priorities and in turn provide feedback to the same system, giving rise to a self-sustaining process.

Although the creation of the idea of a new middle class in India was a political discursive process instituted post economic liberalization, individuals proactively kept appropriating macroeconomic priorities in their good life definitions because they aspired to lead a life of the West or that of material opulence.

Even though only a fraction (2-3 per cent) of India’s current population manages to enjoy such a lifestyle, my research illustrates that changes in socio-culturally held notions of the good life and normalised such excessive consumption choices for the society.

This, in turn, creates points of aspirations for the rest of the population to strive towards an unsustainable standard of living that cannot simply be extended to all. The manufacturing of such aspirations implies that even if the large, impoverished sections of the developing world are provided with an objectively-definable standard of decent living, it may not offer any sense of sustained happiness or well-being.

In short, the ever-increasing demand for resources and energy-intensive lifestyles of a larger share of the world’s population would make it next to impossible for technological fixes to reduce carbon emissions so as to maintain a balance towards the net-zero world.

Now, the increased use of carbon offsets at the personal level will normalise people’s consumption patterns even more conveniently and insulate them from any moral obligation to lower their levels of consumptions. Unless we find a way to effectively reduce the per-capita consumption of the top 10 per cent of the world’s population, we would not be able to address the root cause of the climate crisis and other environmental challenges.

The discussion so far has clearly established the rationale behind the claim that the net-zero may not only be ineffective in lowering the current rate of climate change, it can also be counterproductive in addressing the climate crisis.

As a society, we need to understand that however difficult it may seem for our economies, we have to collectively chart pathways to reduce our consumption demands and find non-materialistic ways to seek human fulfillment.

This current global pattern of increasingly trying to fulfill needs through material need-satisfiers has left many fundamentally unsatisfied and disillusioned. There is a great deal of discussion around the need to decouple the gross domestic product growth from environmental impacts, but the need of the hour is to decouple wellbeing from material pursuits.

Addressing a problem’s root cause does not have easy fixes that don’t disturb the status quo; a shift towards alternative economic models can be neither quick nor without the active participation of every individual and organisations.

A slowly sustained change in socio-cultural priorities and notions of good life, along with necessary infrastructural changes to support that, is the only way forward to realise a sustainable and just world for all.

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