The Dubious Origins of Net Zero

Sitting in an international meeting, one soon become aware that buzzwords and phrases are thrown around in an attempt to convince others that what one is arguing has the imprimatur of previous agreement.

There is much talk of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities”, acting in a precautionary manner, and so on. Such meetings are not cliché-free zones – even less so than domestic politics. Some ideas and concepts succeed in assuming hegemonic significance, and with climate change we find that 2°C, 1.5°C and Net Zero by 2050 have become central to the discourse surrounding the issue and constrain the freedom of participants to act.

We are constantly assured that we are “Following The Science” in all this, a rather silly statement since science is not some monolithic body of knowledge. As Physics Nobel Laurate, Richard Feynman put it, ‘Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.’

These three data points have assumed hegemonic importance for the 26th Conference of the Parties to the Framework Convention on Climate Change beginning in Glasgow on 31 October, 2021. One could be forgiven for thinking that they are based on The Science, but this is not the case.

Their origins lie in politics.

The figure of 2°C above pre-industrial Mean Global Temperature (MGT) is the agreed goal of the 2015 Paris Agreement. We have already seen, according to best estimates, a little under 1.2°C. These are estimates, because the temperature record is patchy – especially for the 70% of the earth’s surface that is water, for which (until the introduction of Argo floats a couple of decades ago) the air temperature has been estimated from the temperature of water sampled by tossing a bucket over the side of ships (suitably adjusted for the transition from wooden buckets to steel buckets).

As it happens, 1.2°C is what Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius predicted for a doubling of atmospheric CO2 in 1896. ‘Arrhenius’s rule’ held that an increase in CO2 “in geometric progression, the augmentation of the temperature will increase nearly in arithmetic progression”. (Arrhenius welcomed the prospect of some global warming, which he considered might help stave off the next inevitable ice age and create better growing conditions to feed a growing population).

The question of how the 2°C came about is important. It is clear that it was driven not by science, but by politics, and actors have simply coalesced around 2°C as a convenient political rallying point. We should not underestimate the complexity of the system which drives global temperature variation, which is made up of not just the atmosphere but also the ocean to which it is coupled via exchange of heat, water, and carbon. The system is non-linear and behaves in ways that are not well understood. The idea that we can control this system to achieve a specific incremental temperature increase – 2°C in this case – is hubris of the worst kind

The first to mention 2°C was an economist – William Nordhaus in 1979. It featured in discussions by scientists at Villach and Bellagio in the late 1980s, but being discussed by scientists does not mean it had a scientific basis. The European Union proposed 2°C as a policy target in 1996, with support by some environmentalists and scientists, and the EU and especially German Chancellor Angela Merkel ‘struggled for a number of years to bring the other G8 leaders onto the 2°C bandwagon’, as Joni Seager put it in 2009, although noting that Al Gore and Bono had adopted it as a touchstone.

But it received a boost in 2009, when just before the 2009 G8 Summit 47 environmental groups published an open letter to President Obama urging that the G8 embrace a goal of staying below the 2°C target, and the G8 leaders adopted it, and it then found its way into the Copenhagen Accord. The G8 leaders’ declaration claimed that it was a ‘scientific view’ that dictated the 2°C target, there being little to support this. It did not appear in the UNFCCC, nor in any IPCC reports. Seager noted that 2°C of global warming was not a geophysical threshold marking a boundary between little and much danger, but ‘patently a political target, constructed ideologically in the service of distinctive interests’.

While it then found its way into the Paris Agreement, 2°C has been criticised by scientific experts and economists as infeasible, expensive, and framing climate policy as providing certain knowledge about causes, climate sensitivity and responses to policy, as if there were a giant ‘thermostat’ on the climate system that allows us to dial in our desired outcome. Or, as Seager (2009) puts it, “This conceit frames the climate as a machine that we can control – perhaps like an oven, that we can turn on and off or hold at a more or less steady temperature point.” Richard Tol (2007) has concluded that the 2°C target is supported by rather thin arguments, based on inadequate methods, sloppy reasoning, and selective citation from a very narrow set of studies.

The 2°C target has, of course, been displaced for many by 1.5°C, but that too is political rather than scientific in origin.

On 17 October 2009, President Nasheed of the Maldives held the world’s first underwater cabinet meeting, a PR stunt before the December 2009 UN Copenhagen climate conference. Mark Lynas, an environmental activist and adviser to Nasheed, wrote from Copenhagen that ‘temperature rises above 1.5°C will destroy this island nation from all sides’. In fact, the Maldives has recently opened five new airports for tourism that would constitute poor investments were these claims true, and research has shown that coral atolls simply grow as water rises, as Charles Darwin observed nearly two centuries ago.

Before Paris, the 44-member Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) pushed for 1.5°C , and were supported by the Climate Vulnerable Forum. With NGOs chanting ‘1.5 to stay alive’, the lower target attracted the support of over 100 countries, without any scientific basis.

But what of “Net Zero by 2050”? Part of the Paris outcome was a reference to the IPCC for a Special Report: Global Warming of 1.5°C, which it duly produced in 2018, and which called for Net Zero by 2050 if warming was to be limited to 1.5°, but by 2075 if it was to be kept to 2°C. The Agreement itself called for Net Zero in the second half of the century, so there was considerable mission creep in specifying Net Zero by 2050, which has become the new lodestar. But the enthusiasm for Net Zero commenced before Paris.

In 2013 about 30 women, including Christiana Figueres, the Executive Secretary of the Framework Convention on Climate Change, met at Glen House in Scotland (pictured), the impressive mid-19th Century mansion inherited by green finance activist Tessa Tennant from her father-in-law, Lord Glenconner (a onetime paramour of Princess Margaret). One participant was Farhana Yamin, and activist lawyer who had advised both the Association of Small Island States and the European Union. It was here that Net Zero originated and from whence it spread – actively by the participants, although the “by 2050” was really added by the IPCC.

It went first to the World Bank, through Glen House participant Rachel Kyte, climate envoy for the Bank, which had at this time adopted (at US insistence) a Directions Statement prohibiting the provision of finance for coal-fired power stations. So, it come to pass that in December 2014 in a speech in Washington DC Bank President Jim Yong Kim said a proposed global climate agreement should “provide a clear pathway to zero net emissions before 2100.”

Then Jennifer Morgan of the World Resources Institute, who was close to the Merkel administration in Germany, succeeded in having Angela Merkel secure G-7 leaders’ approval in June 2015 for a statement, apparently overcoming some reluctance from Japan and Canada, stressing the need for “decarbonisation of the global economy over the course of this century”.

Then came Paris, with its nod in the direction of 1.5°C and the promises of an IPCC Special Report to appease the Small Island States, but with Net Zero in the latter half of the century – allowing the IPCC to embrace both 1.5° and bring the impetus for Net Zero forward to 2050, which is, after all, in the second half of the century – just!

The construction of the cage Australia finds itself in was then closed in 2019 when UN Secretary-General António Guterres wrote to every head of state demanding they set out plans to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. This provided the basis for every NGO and state that saw advantage in Net Zero by 2050 to demand that Australia and every other “recalcitrant” state fall into line with something that they never agreed to – and which lacks any sound scientific basis.

Aynsley Kellow is Professor Emeritus of Government, University of Tasmania, and author of Negotiating Climate Change: A Forensic Analysis and Transforming Power: The Politics of Electricity Planning. He is a Special Correspondent providing commentary on COP26 which will be sent in a daily bulletin to all subscribers to this website (subscribe here, if you haven’t already).