Most net zero claims from oil and gas firms “largely meaningless”

A new report found that even though net zero claims continue to proliferate, even among fossil fuel companies, the commitments are riddled with loopholes.

Helicopter fighting British Columbia forest fires (Photo credit: Adobe Stock/edb3_16)

The number of net zero commitments from the world’s top fossil fuel companies has doubled in the past year, but these net zero claims suffer from “credibility gaps” so significant that they are “largely meaningless,” according to a new report.

Slashing greenhouse gas emissions to “net zero” levels has quickly emerged as a conventional long-term climate goal, typically with target dates of 2040 or 2050. Today, roughly 75 percent of national legislatures have implemented net zero targets, up from 7 percent just two and a half years ago, according to a report by Net Zero Tracker, a UK-based NGO.

Even fossil fuel companies have scrambled to roll out their own net zero claims. An estimated 75 of the 114 largest fossil fuel companies in the world have announced net zero targets, up from 51 a year ago.

One of the main criticisms of net zero frameworks is that they rely heavily on some form of carbon offsetting, or future deployment of carbon capture technologies. The risk is that a net zero pledge buys polluters time to continue business as usual for many more years without requiring any real emissions reductions in the interim.

But there is another more immediate problem with net zero claims — many don’t even account for the vast majority of a company’s emissions. Net Zero Tracker’s new study documents the extent of the problem, underscoring the misleading appearance of progress by the proliferation of net zero claims.

Most of the 114 corporate pledges from the largest fossil fuel companies in the world do not include Scope 3 emissions — the burning of the oil or gas by the end user — which accounts for the overwhelming majority of the carbon pollution embedded in the lifecycle of oil and gas, and thus, the bulk of the emissions for which fossil fuel companies are responsible. In addition, none of the companies have plans to fully unwind their oil and gas operations over time. Many plan to continue to grow production for the foreseeable future.

By excluding the majority of their emissions from their pledges, and by avoiding plans to transition away from fossil fuels, corporate net zero pledges are “largely meaningless,” Net Zero Tracker said.

“We find that the overall robustness of companies’ net zero targets remains low and collective progress too slow,” Dr. Takeshi Kuramochi, senior climate policy researcher at the NewClimate Institute, a German non-profit, said in a statement.

Net Zero Tracker pointed to a 2022 report commissioned by UN Secretary-General António Guterres that details how net zero claims can demonstrate credibility. Pledges cannot simply look to 2050, but need to include short-term interim targets, strict conditions on offsets, and a planned halt to fossil fuel use.

But most net zero pledges from fossil fuel companies and from national governments lack those components.

“Clear consensus has emerged on what is required for robust net zero targets, which serves as a guiding star for both commitments and implementation. No company, city or region can any longer claim not to know what a credible target looks like,” Alexis McGivern, net zero standards manager at Oxford Net Zero, said in a statement. “Several of these initiatives have also made it clear that fossil fuel phase-out is a mandatory part of any credible net-zero strategy.”

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