Real Zero: Persuading the public to challenge net-zero pledges with carbon offsets
In the lead-up to 2021's critical COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, I had the privilege to work side by side with Greenpeace's Global Political Moments team, embedded inside a complementary campaign squad focused on carbon offsets. Together, we gave birth to a new mind bomb we hope will take root internationally: "real zero."
"Real zero" is short-hand for the goal of achieving net-zero carbon emissions globally without commodifying nature by earmarking it for carbon offsets trading. In basic math terms: Real zero = net-zero goals minus carbon offsets. Why real zero? Because climate science clearly states that we can't afford business as usual levels of the burning of fossil fuels. But many rich nations and corporations are making distant ambitious pledges to reach "carbon neutrality" by buying carbon offset credits from tracts of forest, peatland, and other biomes that serve as carbon sinks.
Ever since the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, the term "net-zero" has been co-opted by corporations as a cynical greenwashing exercise, which usually goes something like this: A firm pledges to achieve "net-zero" carbon emissions by some distant deadline far out into the future - 2030, 2040, 2050 - without any specific plan or benchmarks to get there. Then, they start to broker deals with carbon traders, governments, or conservation organizations to pay to pollute. We need to get to never burning fossil fuels in the first place. We need 100% clean renewable energy and transport.
Not all carbon offsets trading is bad. Many projects are tied to clean renewable energy projects like wind, solar and battery storage. But purchasing carbon offsets from forests and peatland distorts land use and can sometimes displace communities who rely upon the land for their livelihood.
The stakes were high at COP26. Former Bank of Canada and Bank of England Chair Mark Carney had been advocating in 2021 for a global reboot of carbon offsets trading, led by the International Institute of Finance, private sector companies, and financial institutions. Carney likes to boast the unified carbon offset market could be worth $100 million by 2030. International support for a scaling up of offsets trading would trigger a gold rush, where polluting rich nations would "pay for the privilege to pollute" by buying credits from poorer nations.
Before joining the team, I had a few weeks to draft some desk research on carbon offsets and the co-opting of "net-zero" by corporate actors. It was eye-opening.
First, I scoured the web for polls on public attitudes toward carbon offsets specifically. “Offsets” “nature-based solutions” and “false solutions” are not widely used terms with the general public; net zero and carbon neutral are becoming so. One reason is corporations have been getting on the "net zero" bandwagon.
I learned many name-brand corporations have been announcing net-zero commitments independently on their terms since 2019. As of February 2021, 92 name brands made announcements including Apple, AstraZeneca, Barclays, BP, British Airways, Dell, Facebook, Ikea, KPMG, Microsoft, Nestle, Qantas, Qatar Airways, Shell, Total, Tyson Foods, and more. Because company commitments are voluntary, cast far into the future, and lack detailed drawdown plans beyond a press announcement, it’s impossible to know to what degree corporations will use offsetting to reach these commitments… or if they will reach them.
I learned that big tech brands like Google, Apple, and Microsoft are invested in carbon offsets, but not as a primary means of achieving carbon neutrality. All three have invested heavily in sourcing renewable energy and storage directly for operations to offset present and past carbon footprints. Big tech is the closest industry to achieving "real zero" - not burning fossil fuels at the source.
Contrarily, big oil and gas firms like BP and aviation companies like American Airlines have pledged "carbon neutrality" without any plan to shift their core business away from fossil fuels. These sectors are the most likely to purchase land-based carbon offset credits.
Regarding public opinion on offsets, prominent public polling centers devoted exclusively to climate change opinions like the Yale Program on Climate Change and the George Mason University for Climate Change Communication have dozens of polls but none explore public conceptions of net-zero “carbon neutral” or “offsets” perceptions in any depth.
One poll that got close to the issue was a 2018 Ipsos poll of 1,428 adult Americans on “offsets” specifically but in a personal context. 67% of Americans say that they are familiar with carbon offsetting for their footprint from auto or air travel. At the same time, 54% say they have heard of it, but don’t know exactly what it is. 88% have never purchased a carbon offset before. One out of two people would never pay extra for an offset. The fact that 54% of people have heard personal offsets while not knowing what they are suggests the public is very vulnerable to “feel good” greenwashing as well. Paying to pollute... though it seems they're not likely to pay.
Making carbon offsets easy to understand
To build a public campaign to delegitimize carbon offsets trading and legitimize a scaling up of 100% renewable energy and transport at the source, we had to make things simple for people.
Here are some key arguments we came up with we thought would resonate with people:
We must draw down the burning of fossil fuels and stop completely ASAP. Period. - The most direct route to solving the climate crisis is to dramatically drawdown and then stop burning fossil fuels completely. Full stop.
Carbon offsets are outdated. Carbon offsets and markets were created in the 1990s when we didn’t have readily available renewable energy and electrified transport solutions. Today, nations can deploy cost-effective solar, wind, and hydroelectric energy and adopt electrified transport that empower any nation or company to stop burning fossil fuels at the source.
Carbon offsets put a price on nature. We cannot allow the richest nations and corporations to pay off Global South countries for offsets credits so they can keep polluting the atmosphere.
Forests and carbon sinks allocated for offsets can be destroyed by climate fires and other disasters. With the explosion in climate change-driven wildfires, many forests and grasslands earmarked for offsetting could literally go up in smoke.
Burning fossils equals immediate damage. Offsets take decades. When fossil fuels are burned, emissions are released in seconds, immediately contributing to planetary heating. Offsetting CO2 from preserved natural areas takes decades that we don’t have.
Carbon capture and storage should not be an excuse to burn more fossil fuels.
These led to simplified arguments designed to reach people at deeper reference frames:
Renewable energy, electrified transport - the only way forward. No more fossil fuels burning.
No one owns nature. Nature is not for sale.
We can’t carve up nature for profit and save the planet.
Our company needs to do the right thing. No more fossil fuels
Net-zero is not “real” zero. “Real zero - no fossil fuel burning at the source - is the only way to solve the climate crisis.
Net-zero pledges mean they burn now, we pay later.
We launched the campaign three weeks before the COP26 conference in Glasgow. Our mission was to get the firepower of Greenpeace's network of offices to change the conversation online and make "real zero" a bigger part of the conversation and create public skepticism on vague promises and carbon offsets. All content was unified by the #realzero hashtag.
Our European Food and Forest team partnered with us to create some incredible videos designed to show viscerally how lofty promises are fundamentally deceptive without action. Take a look:
For my part, since I learned the public wasn't educated on the risks of net-zero pledges with carbon offsetting and few public opinion polls addressed it, we'd have to create our poll quickly. Therefore, I designed a 10-question unscientific poll designed to gauge people's baseline understanding of "net-zero" and "carbon offsets," educate them on the basics, and ask them what type of action they support, solutions inspired by "real zero" or "net zero."
This online poll was conducted from Oct. 27 to Nov. 7, 2021 in eight languages, English, Spanish, French, German, Portuguese, Danish, Chinese and Hebrew. Thanks to the efforts of our global offices, 2,681 people responded from more than 60 countries. We summarized the most important findings in a series of infographics that were shared worldwide. Here are a few below:
In the end, Talkwalker social media monitoring clearly indicated we moved the needle on #realzero in the public arena. Greenpeace generated more than 1,000 posts of #realzero. Our most active posts received more than 20,000 likes, comments, or shares. The hashtag grew from 0.1% to 1.2% of global conversation (tracking #netzero vs. #realzero). #realzero engagement on Greenpeace Instagram channels exceeded any account globally using #netzero.
Drilling down demographically, #realzero was shown to have gender balance. #netzero was dominated by men. 75% of #realzero content was published by individuals. Half of #netzero was published by companies. #realzero also resonated more with youth under age 24 than #netzero.
In the end, the campaign and our work on offsets during COP26 was a big success. Our Executive Director Jennifer Morgan, who protested with Greta Thunberg against offsets plans specifically made a lot of waves. The online media attention for Greenpeace at COP26 was 3.3 times higher than at COP25, driven in part by our adoption of #realzero which continues in much of our communication.
Global survey shows hardly any support for net-zero pledges with carbon offsets
We need urgent action to phase-out fossil fuels and cut emissions fast.
Yet as nations began wrapping up the difficult talks at the UN Climate Change Conference, also known as COP26 in Glasgow, false solutions, such as net-zero offsets and carbon markets ended up on the agenda. Now climate negotiators and youth activists are debating net-zero and what it will mean for years to come.
Net-zero refers to the goal of balancing the amount of greenhouse gasses emitted by a country or corporation by “offsetting” those amounts through forest preservation, other land-based carbon sinks or direct carbon capture technology (which is not proven to work).
We’ve been introducing the term “real zero” this year. Essentially, it means commitments from nations or companies to end the burning of fossil fuels, and the abandonment of carbon offset credit trading and an acceleration toward fossil-free energy as soon as possible. No business as usual. No tricky fancy accounting. No burning now and pay for it later.
The terminology can be confusing though so we wanted to ask you ourselves what you think about net zero and carbon offsets. Greenpeace International distributed a global online poll from 27 October to 7 November 2021 in eight languages -English, Spanish, French, German, Portuguese, Danish, Chinese, and Hebrew. 2681 people responded from more than 60 countries.
Results showed that only about half of those people could correctly define “net zero” or “carbon offsets.” Some confused net zero as the actual goal of bringing absolute carbon emissions to zero – a lofty but difficult goal.
When asked “When should nations achieve net-zero emissions?” 77.5% of respondents answered, “as soon as possible.” Only 14.7% said by 2030 and 3.5% said by 2050 and 1% said later than 2050. The result suggests that the declarations of nations pledging to achieve net-zero carbon neutrality by 2050 or even later, are largely out of step with public opinion. Once the correct definition of “net-zero” and “carbon offsets credits” were defined, when asked “Do you support achieving “net-zero” through “carbon offset credits?,” 81.1% answered “no,” 18.8% answered “yes.”
The question “Do you trust a company that boasts about its net-zero pledge but then continues to burn fossil energy or increase their emissions footprint, saying they’ll achieve neutrality through carbon offsets credits?” 97.8% of respondents answered they would not trust a company doing this. 2.2% said yes.
This is a warning to companies jumping on the net-zero bandwagon without disclosing serious plans to curb fossil fuel usage. Shareholders might be fooled and relieved, but respondents are to be catching on to how disingenuous this clever greenwashing actually is.
Google Trends indicates there has been a significant increase in the search of “net-zero” as a term in the past four years. Why? Well in part because dozens of large corporations have announced net-zero commitments since 2019, to win favor with the climate-conscious. As of February 2021, 92 name brands have made such announcements including BP, British Airways, Facebook, Qantas, Qatar Airways, Shell, TotalEnergies, and more.
Equally confusing is the term “carbon offsets” which is a way of measuring the carbon mitigation potential through credits, which in theory will cancel out past GHG emissions emitted. What’s buried in the lead is that carbon offsets are traded on a massive scale. Through mandatory and voluntary carbon offset schemes, rich polluters spew gigatons of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide into the atmosphere each year and then purchase carbon offset credits so that their emissions are canceled on paper.
Some are tied to renewable energy projects, but many others are tied to cordoning off natural carbon sinks like forests or peatlands, which often displace local communities who rely upon it. Carbon offset trading is a way to commodify nature and allows wealthier, higher emitting nations to pay to pollute.
Poll respondents made their views clear: when asked “Which solution sounds like a more effective way to solve the climate crisis?,” 93.9% answered, “Real zero without offsets – Rapidly phasing out all fossil fuel burning and greenhouse gases through transitioning to clean energy and sustainable food systems.” Only 6.1% answered “Net zero with offsets – Gradually phasing out fossil fuel emissions over decades and offsetting carbon footprints by use of nature-based offset credits.”
When asked to rank who you “trust most to offer credible solutions to the climate crisis?,” climate activists and nonprofit organizations ranked as “most trusted.” National governments and corporations were ranked as “least trusted.” The lacking commitments to climate action coming out of COP26 underscore this point.
The question now is this: when will those who make decisions finally listen?
The people have spoken: they can see through the dangerous lies of offsets and are ready to speak up about real zero. We need real climate action now, not greenwashing. We need real zero.