Net-Zero Carbon is Not Zero-Carbon

Net-Zero grid, net-zero buildings, net-zero housing, net-zero climate goals. We hear these phrases all over the place nowadays. They are meant to be the gold standard for environmental conscientiousness and progressive planning. And they are. That’s the problem.

A net outcome is a term most often used in economic considerations where all inputs and outputs of a project/timeframe are considered together. You’ve seen this in action when you get your paycheque as you see what your gross income is and then cry a little bit as your taxes, investments, and other requirements are taken out before you see your net income.

list of carbon intensities of various energy production methods from the World Nuclear Association. I don’t really agree with the Biomass numbers but that’s for a different article.

Take a look at the chart and see if you can spot the difference between mixing renewables and fossil fuels in order to reach net zero and the taxes on your paycheque reducing your gross income is.

There are no negative values on that chart. And if your goal is to bring a net value to zero, you need to subtract exactly as much as you add to the pool of what you are measuring. And unlike your paycheque, the atmosphere you use is not unique to you. It doesn’t matter if your excess power generated from your windmills or solar panels can be used to prevent someone else from using some amount of coal or natural gas or oil. As long as we have carbon intensive processes involved in making our clean energy sources (looking at you concrete and steel), then all our sources will have carbon costs associated with them, making it impossible to truly achieve net-zero by themselves.

I know it’s been a while since we’ve had to think about how to eat nachos with other people in the room due to Covid-19, but I swear we did in fact used to have to only dip a chip once.

If we only used zero-carbon energy like nuclear, geothermal, hydro, solar, or wind to provide all the energy for making new zero-carbon energy then we would be at actual zero carbon. But Net-Zero proponents would try to make us think that Net-zero is just as good as actual zero; that the reduction in someone else’s carbon emissions by using your provided low carbon source somehow Also reduces your carbon footprint to zero. Double dipping only works when you are eating nachos alone. The difference between your provided low carbon electricity and the grid based high carbon electricity either reduces the carbon of the person who uses it, or the carbon of the person who provides it. Not both.

And it doesn’t help that there is a murky public understanding of when something is promoted as Net Zero Energy vs Net Zero Carbon. Both try to make you think that they are a way of “cancelling out” your personal contributions to energy use and carbon emissions. But you can’t cancel out your energy use, you can only reduce it (thanks Conservation of Energy Law!). This is the fundamental reason that economic theory cannot map onto energy policy perfectly. Unlike money, we have a finite (although effectively inexhaustible) amount of energy that we utilize to mobilize our selves and society. Whereas with money, we continually make more of it and when we need more than we make we are able to go into debt to say that we are borrowing from tomorrow. But we cannot pull energy from tomorrow to today, we can only use what we have at hand.

Now, there is actually a way to reach Net-zero Carbon. However it requires spending a great deal of energy to actually do it. We’ve mentioned it here before, Direct Air Carbon Capture. Spend energy to pull CO2 directly from the atmosphere, That would count as a negative carbon value so it could be used to reach Net-Zero Carbon. But remember how we said that until Every source of energy everywhere is clean then none of them are? So by that logic we emitting carbon into the air to produce the energy needed to pull carbon from the air. This means that there is a point where the amount of carbon emitted is more than the amount of energy produced can remove. What that amount is depends on too many factors to come to any specific value for all possible methods of carbon capture. But it would exist and thus adds yet another barrier to claims of Net Zero proponents even if they were pursuing carbon capture as their strategy. This barrier is due to the fact that on a grid, there is no way to differentiate sources of energy for specific end uses.

But what about Renewable Energy Credits/Certificates you might ask? If a company pays for the RECs to cover their entire usage doesn’t that mean that they are operating at effective zero? True, that could theoretically work, so long as you are okay with the buyers of RECs effectively shoveling their carbon emissions onto the plate of those who can’t afford/don’t buy RECs. The grid is a zero-sum system. There are a set number of inputs and they have defined carbon intensities. So if you “shift” the low carbon to the Rec buyers then you by definition shift the carbon emissions to the others on the grid.

I can understand the lack of pipettes, most people don’t keep those around the house, but gloves people! Lab Safety starts at home! Plus it just Feels more sciency.

Of course it’s a moot point since you can’t shift where the low carbon or high carbon energy goes anyways for the same reason. In fact there is a fun experiment you can do at home with your kids or nieces/nephews (when we are all allowed to visit with other people after this pandemic of course) to prove this to yourself. Get three paper or plastic cups, fill two of them half way and then put in some food colouring into each of them, one red and one blue. Now pour them both into the third unused cup and see it turn purple. Now poke some holes in the cup and see if you can get Only the red water to come out of some of the holes and only blue out of others.

In the end, no number of accounting tricks, media statements, or government policies will change the simple fact that the only way to reduce carbon emissions is to reduce carbon emissions. Letting groups slide under the goals we set for carbon intensities of operations by allowing things such as offsets or simply paying extra money for something they can’t actually do is not helpful at best and actively detrimental at worst. The only way forward is public and open showcasing of removal of high carbon sources and replacement of them Only with capable and reliable low carbon energy systems. And lots of them, because we still need to remove a bunch of excess CO2 after reducing our output in order to get back to normal before we can rest on our climate laurels.

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