Net Zero becomes Not Zero

‘The world’s first net zero coal mine’ is the new corporate branding trick of West Cumbria Mining (WCM) for its proposed mine near Whitehaven. Launched on the first day of the public inquiry into the mine earlier this week, it attempts to align the investment with Government policy. But in attempting to reposition itself WCM has hastened the end of net zero as a credible concept?

Where we have come from

‘Net-zero’ gained traction in 2019 following an IPCC report warning of the grave danger of global warming above 1.5°. To ensure that we stay below 1.5° rapid reductions in fossil fuel use are needed, though some limited fossil fuel use will be necessary by 2050. So it has been accepted that any remaining fossil fuel use can be compensated by carbon removals such as tree planting or carbon capture and storage. Hence ‘net-zero’.

Since 2019, over 700 companies have signed up to ‘net-zero’ pledges. More than 130 countries have or are planning to have a net-zero policies and legislation in place, including the UK.

Behind these pledges are a set of rules administered by the Science Based Targets Initiative. A solid net-zero commitment would halve emissions across Scopes 1, 2 and 3 by 2030 and then to close to zero by 2050, offsetting the remainder. A credible commitment would have a public plan of tangible actions for the next 24-36 months.

Where we are

But this is where it gets murky. Looking at the different net-zero targets of companies, there are a range of assumptions, baselines and scopes that make it hard to compare the promises of different companies even within the same sector. Mixing GHG removals with reductions is further compounding the confusion. What once looked simple is actually full of loopholes. Someone closely involved in the process once confided with me that there is more speculation than science when it comes to some of the calculations.

The original intent of ‘Net Zero’ – to create corporate action to push for government action has been captured by corporate marketing departments. This is diverting attention from what is really needed.

Rather than ‘net zero’ pledges, companies should set a timetable and dates for being free of fossil fuels. The International Energy Agency (formed to guide industrialised countries energy policy) has illustrated this urgency by stating that the world needs to ensure there is ‘no investment in new fossil fuel supply projects’.

Where we are going

A few companies understand this, and are changing their communications – Unilever is committing to electric trucks, Maersk is investing in ships that will run on methanol, and steel companies are working hard to replace coal with hydrogen. Quietly, a change is underway.

So beware those that cling to the net-zero narrative.

Which brings us back to West Cumbria Mining. A company owned by a private equity firm with a complex shareholder structure that ends in the Cayman Islands. It’s a safe thing for them to rebrand themselves as net zero. It aligns them with UK Government Policy and positions them within the mainstream of the corporate world.

Yet a serious company would make a net zero pledge having done some due diligence to know that they can get there. There is no evidence that WCM have the first idea, or the intention. Their marketing partner is a global coal trader owned and financed by coal companies.

West Cumbria Mining has achieved one thing though. It has drawn attention to an unintended consequence of the success of Net Zero: its become the latest overused meaningless corporate buzz-phrase. We need to face the fact that Net Zero has been captured by companies which really believe in Not Zero.