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The problem(s) with net zero

Protocol Climate

Hello, fellow planeteers! With your powers combined, we are Protocol Climate. We’re here today to explore what net zero is, actually. It’s probably not what you think, but that’s mostly because nobody can really agree on what it means. We’ll also dive 20,000 leagues under the sea in search of minerals. Sustainably, of course.

The net zero problem

We’re devoting these early newsletters to making sure we’re all on the same page when it comes to major themes that will come up again and again in tech companies’ climate strategies (Tuesday’s entry notwithstanding, but hey, that’s the news game). Today’s entry: disambiguating “net zero” and what on Earth it means for our ability to keep the planet habitable.

“Net zero” doesn’t mean zero carbon emissions. In fact, the concept implies by its very definition that emissions will continue.

  • True zero emissions means absolutely no carbon emissions. Zilch. If you are a company, it means eliminating greenhouse gas emissions entirely: no Scope 1, 2 or 3 emissions whatsoever. If you are a country, it means transitioning to zero emissions electricity, transportation and industry, and your citizens are probably eating very little meat. Easy to define, much (much!) harder to achieve.
  • Getting to net zero emissions relies on a different calculus, one where a company or country reduces carbon emissions and then offsets the rest. (“Carbon neutral” means essentially the same thing, but we’re trying to ease you into climate-world lingo.)
  • The term gained steam following a 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report showing that meeting the 1.5-degree-Celsius target — a threshold key to a stable climate — requires hitting net zero by mid-century.

Pledges to get to net zero are everywhere — but they’re of varying quality.

  • Companies in the tech sector are particularly likely to sport net zero pledges, including Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook. Google claims it has achieved carbon neutrality for its operations since 2007, and is aiming to achieve net zero emissions across its value chain by 2030. Godspeed!
  • More than 70 countries have so far set net zero targets. Bhutan was far ahead of the pack, setting one in 2015, while major emitters such as China, India and the U.S. have followed suit over the past few years.
  • But the world is falling far, far behind the pace of emissions reductions needed to actually reach net zero by 2050, and very few companies — or countries, for that matter — have a comprehensive or realistic roadmap for getting there.
  • A recent report found that 25 of the world’s most valuable companies have climate plans that are weaker than they profess to be, often leaning on carbon offsets that are impermanent (such was the case for entire forests of offsets that went up in flames last summer). These companies include both Google and Amazon.

Net zero pledges have made the market for carbon offsets boom. But that market is also a minefield! Stay tuned for a future newsletter that tackles offsets in much more detail, but for now, it is important to note that not all carbon offset options are created equally; some can even harm the climate in the long term by providing a false sense of security. Many net zero plans are a sham because they rely too heavily on offsets.

  • You can offset emissions in quite a few ways. Among them are planting trees; capturing methane; improving efficiency; investing in renewables projects; and building negative emissions technologies. Those technologies, though, remain in the very early stages of development.
  • One fly in the ointment: Some offsets are also mitigation strategies. For instance, if a wind farm would not be built if not for the offset investment, it would be considered offsetting potential fossil fuel power production from the grid. But just buying wind power is not an offset.
  • Despite their flaws, offsets have a place at the net zero table. Some emissions are known in the climate world as "hard to abate," which include those from airplanes or from making steel. Getting to net zero means offsetting those emissions, at least until we can figure out whether it is possible to get them to absolute zero.

Though it’s a messy concept, net zero is still fixable. It just means getting our priorities straight, starting with getting carbon emissions as close to true zero as humanly possible.

  • The world needs to focus on mitigating emissions via a rapid transition to renewables and accompanying electrification.
  • Offsets should only be used to make up for any final gaps to reach net zero.
  • There are actually encouraging developments that this reduce-offset two-step can happen. That same report that found many climate plans aren’t living up to the hype also found that Apple is already sourcing nearly all of its energy from renewables developers and its own installations. And the company has specified a plan to bring its overall emissions down by 75% by 2030, while just offsetting that final 25%.
— Lisa Martine Jenkins (email | twitter)

The world debates deep-sea mining

A famous crustacean once sang, “The human world, it's a mess. Life under the sea is better than anything they got up there.” Apologies to Sebastian and the cast of “The Little Mermaid,” but the human world is poised to come to you.

This week, the United Nations is convening talks on deep-sea mining regulations. The International Seabed Authority has brought together 167 nations in Jamaica to hammer out an agreement on what to do about all the minerals sitting on the seafloor. The meeting comes as the world loses its collective mind over nickel, cobalt and lithium, all minerals that are essential to making the batteries that will keep our electrified future charged up. The seafloor is full of just those things, often found in deposits of the delightfully named polymetallic nodules.

The negotiations have a sense of urgency because the tiny Pacific island nation of Nauru triggered a clause known as the “two-year rule” last year. If the ISA fails to set rules, then mining contractors can go to town on the seafloor, governed only by whatever regulations are in place at the time.

Nauru, you will be shocked to learn, is ready to mine the deep sea. But other nations, including fellow Pacific islands like Fiji, and a host of scientists want to tap the brakes on deep-sea mining for a few reasons. One, we don’t know a ton about the ecological impacts of scouring the seafloor for minerals. I’m not a scientist but … seems bad. (Actual scientists are concerned, and research shows it can take decades for the seafloor to recover.) The other reason is the world may not actually need to mine the seafloor in the first place. That’s also according to science.

Mining the seafloor could be an economic lifeline to small nations with limited land resources, like Nauru. But maybe the world could collectively figure out a way to help those countries without destroying fragile ecosystems on the bottom of the sea we don’t know much about.

Market economies being what they are, we’re probably going to end up mining the deep sea anyway. So the countries meeting in Jamaica better make sure the regulations have strong enforcement and oversight mechanisms.

—Brian Kahn (email | twitter)

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Make it rain

Span, a company focused on the oft-ignored electricity panel, just scored $90 million in series B funding. The company is run by the former head of Products for Tesla, so it probably knows a thing or two about electrification.

Beep makes cute autonomous EVs, and it just got another $25 million in series A-1 funding to help bring them to the masses.

BP — yes, that BP — has invested roughly $4 million in Flylogix, a drone company, after a successful test run of its drones in the North Sea. The plan is to use its drones to help hunt for methane emissions, a greenhouse gas 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide, tied with oil and gas production.

Stellantis has joined LG in investing more than $4.1 billion in a 45 gigawatt-hour electric vehicle battery plant in Canada. The plant will produce batteries for Stellantis’ auto assembly plants across North America.

— Brian Kahn

Hot links

Tesla has a new type of battery — manganese-based cathode, in case you’re curious — in the works, according to Elon.

Roughly $64 million is heading to electric vehicle products, courtesy of earmarks (remember those?) in the $1.5 trillion spending package that Biden signed last week.

Nuclear fusion has never been hotter, at least in the eyes of VCs. And that’s saying a lot.

More bad cyber news for the energy sector: The FBI says Russian hackers are already probing at least five U.S. energy companies.

Did Occidental have an epiphany? The oil and gas producer is developing the world’s largest direct air capture facility, an effort that will surely cost a boatload of cash but is being helped along by a federal tax credit. But it’s still no substitute for not producing more oil and gas.

Speaking of, new research shows rich countries need to stop producing fossil fuels by 2034. Maybe Occidental should look into that?

— Lisa Martine Jenkins

A MESSAGE FROM EMEX

Harness the power of APIs and IoT to streamline accurate data capture so you can track and quantify the most important sustainability metrics for your organization and your investors. All this power, one single platform.

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Thanks for reading! As ever, you can send any and all feedback to climate@protocol.com. We’ll be back in your inboxes next week!

Correction: This newsletter was updated on March 24, 2022 to clarify the carbon neutrality of Google's operations, not Google overall.

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