Don’t let belief in net-zero make us complacent

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Maggie Gill smiling for the camera
Professor Maggie Gill OBE FRSE, emeritus Professor in the School of Biology, University of Aberdeen.

Net-zero is a phrase that has caught the imagination of millions. It gives hope that technology will deliver the solutions to capturing carbon and enable those of us in rich countries to continue doing the things in our current lifestyles that we value most as individuals. The belief that technology can save us helps us feel as if we are acting responsibly when we take small steps to reduce our carbon footprints e.g. by insulating our homes, eating less meat, travelling fewer miles; but are we really doing enough? I always respect people who have the courage to say, “I am sorry I got it wrong” and that is what James Dyke, Bob Watson and Wolfgang Knorr did in a recent article published in April.

Collectively they have spent “more than 80 years thinking about climate change” and even promoted the concept of net-zero, but they now recognise it has supported a belief that technology will find a solution (or solutions) and help us avoid drastic changes in our lifestyle. The problem with technology is not a shortage of ideas. There are many clever scientists in the world who have suggested ways of capturing carbon, or reflecting the sun’s rays, or carbon-free ways of generating energy. The problem is that there are undoubtedly unforeseen consequences of scaling up the implementation of those technologies. Each one needs land, or energy, or international negotiations beyond feasible boundaries. Mathematical models help of course, but they depend on assumptions, and the outputs from such models can be seductive, lulling us into believing that we humans understand the world and can control it to enable us to continue living as before.

Those of us privileged to have benefited from carbon-heavy lifestyles should be the ones pushing for change.

So should we jettison net-zero and come up with a different concept? It is too late for that. The UK’s Committee on Climate Change has recommended net zero as a target for 2050 at UK level and 2045 in Scotland. This spawned a momentum of different sectors publishing their Roadmaps to Net Zero committing to targets for carbon reductions, but more of a transition than a transformation in the belief that technology will make up the difference. What Dyke et al pointed out is an increasing realisation that such a belief is a false premise.

What should we do then? We should follow the lead of the younger generation – those who will not have a choice of a lifestyle as good as my generation has had, and challenge those roadmaps, shame ‘big business’ into doing more by taking actions as consumers to change our habits; challenge our fellow academics to look beyond the boundaries of their recommendations into potential unintended consequences in other disciplines; and, as voters, challenge our politicians to go beyond making promises which rely on technological fixes. Those of us privileged to have benefited from carbon-heavy lifestyles should be the ones pushing for change.

Is net-zero achievable? No one knows. Science has an incomplete understanding of the interconnections in our global ecosystem and without that knowledge, we cannot build the perfect model. We can, however, learn from our mistakes (like the three eminent scientists referenced above) adjust our course, advocate (and live) a just transformation, not simply a just transition.

Professor Maggie Gill OBE FRSE is Emeritus Professor in the School of Biology, University of Aberdeen.

This article was originally written for the ReSourcE magazine Summer 2021 edition, focusing on issues of climate change in the lead-up to COP26.

The RSE’s blog series offers personal views on a variety of issues. These views are not those of the RSE and are intended to offer different perspectives on a range of current issues.