26 October 2021

"Net zero 2050" is a deadly scam justifying fossil fuel use way past 2050. It is not to be celebrated.

by David Spratt

DOWNLOAD Briefing Paper: Net zero 2050 is a dangerous illusion

Should the Australia Government be congratulated for finally, and in a completely empty manner, saying it supports a "Net zero 2050" climate target?

The answer is no, because as RenewEconomy put it today, the government's announcement is “A joke" Morrison’s net zero plan has net zero detail, and no change to policies."

Writing for RenewEconomy some weeks ago, Ketan Joshi declared that the Murdoch media empire "hasn’t seen the light on climate – they’re just updating their tactics". And the tactic of doing a 180-degree climate back-flip and with a straight face supporting "Net zero 2050" (NZ2050) is two-fold: to smooth the climate path for Prime Minister Morrison as an aid to his reelection chances; and to be on the winner's side when the architects of climate procrastination have their way in Glasgow in November.

The flaws in NZ2050 scenarios are so profound, it's hard not to call the whole exercise a scam; an elaborate subterfuge to keep the fossil fuel giants polluting Earth for many decades past 2050. We analysed these flaws in a recent Breakthrough Briefing Paper. Here is part of the story...


False assumption 1: Based on IPCC reports, NZ2050 scenarios, such as those of the International Energy Agency (IEA) (Net zero by 2050: A roadmap for the global energy sector), assume a carbon budget for 1.5°C, but there is none; the global warming trend is likely to exceed 1.5°C by 2030, perhaps earlier, regardless of the emissions path this decade, as the recent IPCC concluded. This warming is a consequence of past emissions and the fact that sulfate-based aerosols, a by-product of burning fossil fuels, are temporarily masking more than 0.5°C of warming (Samset et al, 2018, Geo. Res. Lett. 45:1020-1029), but this mask will quickly dissipate as fossil fuel use decreases.

False assumption 2: The published NZ2050 scenarios will not keep warming to the levels they claim.  The IEA scenario claims to keep below 1.5°C for the whole century, but this is not credible. In various ways, these scenarios overestimate the carbon budget, underestimate warming to date, ignore or underestimate relevant physical processes/feedbacks, use too-low estimates of climate sensitivity and/or underestimate future physical damage and economic losses (Spratt and Dunlop, 2021, Carbon Budgets for 1.5 & 2°C briefing note, Breakthrough). 

Climate change is already dangerous and the Earth has already passed several tipping points: for coral reefs, Arctic sea ice and some Antarctic glaciers. Greenland and the Amazon are also close to tipping at just 1.2°C of warming. Further tipping points could be triggered at low levels of global warming and a cluster of abrupt shifts could occur between 1.5°C and 2°C (Lenton et al, 2020, Nature 575:592-595).  2°C may trigger a “Hothouse Earth” scenario in which climate system feedback mechanisms and their mutual interaction drive the Earth System climate to a point of no return, whereby further warming would become self-sustaining (Steffen et al, 2018, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 115:8252-8259). 

Carbon budgets for the 2°C target have unacceptable risks of failure and make optimistic assumptions that the climate system is not close to triggering a cascade of tipping points.  But even accepting the IPCC’s over-optimistic carbon budget for 2°C at face value, 2050 is the wrong timeline, by decades:

  • The world needs to be at zero emissions by 2030 for the 2°C target, based on three assumptions: 1. Mitigation expenditure no more than 3% of GDP; 2. No geoengineering; 3. Climate sensitivity is not low (Lamontagne et al, 2019. Nature Climate Change, 9:290–294). 
  • Double-digit annual mitigation rates are required of developed countries. Without a belief in the successful deployment of planetary scale negative emissions technologies, double-digit annual mitigation rates are required of developed countries, from 2020, if they are to align their policies with the Paris Agreement’s temperature commitments and principles of equity (Anderson et al, 2019, Climate Policy 10:1290-13040).
  • The warming for the level of greenhouse gases in 2019 may be greater than 2°C, using CMIP6 models (Huntingford et al, 2020, Climatic Change 162:1515–1520)


“Net” zero scenarios, both from the IEA and central bankers under the umbrella of the Network for Greening the Financial System (NGFS), include significant fossil fuels use well beyond 2050, to be counter-balanced by “offsets” such as land-based carbon farming and forestation, and bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), or buying credits in developing nations. For example:

  • In the influential NGFS “Below 2C” scenario, fossil fuels comprise 50% of global primary energy use in 2050. In their preferred “NZ2050” scenario it is 32% in 2050.
  • The Shell Energy 2021 Transition Strategy 2021 commits to reducing “our total
    absolute emissions to net zero by 2050”, but plans to increase gas production and use “nature based solutions” as offsets. 
  • The IEA NZ2050 scenario includes 22% of primary energy from fossil fuels in 2050, with 11% using carbon capture and storage, and the other 11% being offset. 


  • Carbon sequestration actions, including forestation, better storage of land carbon, direct capture technologies, and BECCS from crops and waste, are forms of carbon dioxide removal (CDR) that should be used to reduce atmospheric CO2 back to safe levels, the “big minus” goal. Carbon sequestration in the NGFS NZ2050 scenario is almost 8 billion tonnes of CO2 by 2050, including more than 3 billion tonnes from BECCS, even though current drawdown from BECCS is practically zero.
  • Less crop land, more biofuels:  In the NZ2050 scenarios, CDR is used to “offset” or counter-balance emissions from continuing fossil fuels use, even after 2050. And emphasis is given to bioenergy, which provides around 20% of primary energy in 2050. BECCS uses crops grown for energy, and competes with land for food. This means that in the NGFS NZ2050 scenario, the amount of land available for crops decreases by 8% by 2050, even as GDP doubles and population grows by 20% in 30 years. Global demand for food would likely be around 50% higher than at present, with less cropland than now, which makes this land-use assumption heroic. 
  • Reliance on large scale CDR deployment as offsets runs the risk that anticipated future CDR could dilute incentives to reduce emissions now, a phenomenon known as mitigation deterrence (Grant et al. 2021, Envir. Res. Lett.,16:064099), or “moral hazard”.  Of the CO2 emissions savings to 2050 in the NGFS NZ2050 scenario, almost half come from technologies under development rather than those already in the market. Whilst the scenarios rely on a good deal on CDR, it is acknowledged by NGFS that CDR is a big “if”, because such technologies “only currently take place on a limited scale and face their own challenges”.


Saying net zero 2050 is “the best we can do” is caving into an unsustainable and dangerous future, and giving up on protecting major Earth systems and ecologies. The NZ2050 scenarios will not save the world’s coral reefs, nor stop rapid and devastating Arctic change or prevent the inundation of low-lying small island states. Due to the proximity of systemic tipping points, “winning slowly” (with growth-as-usual incremental change) is the same as losing. There is no longer any gradualist solution which, for example, might allow the existing economic approach to be preserved with even substantial change. Discontinuity and disruption are now inevitable: either by moving too slowly and allowing a climate-warming physical and social catastrophe, or moving at the emergency speed necessary to achieve a “big minus” goal of returning Earth to a safe climate. 

Climate emergency. Contrary to the unrealistic NZ2050 scenarios that pretend we can double GDP and feed more people on a higher living standard with less cropland and growing water insecurity, a global climate emergency-level mobilisation that makes climate the first priority of climate and politics provides the best pathway. This is not a pipedream but a practical necessity. Australia Institute research in November 2019 found a clear majority of Australians agree the nation “is facing a climate emergency” requiring emergency action and in response, governments should “mobilise all of society”, as they did during the world wars. 

  • “The climate emergency is our third world war. Our lives and civilization as we know it are at stake, just as they were in the second world war.” — Joseph Stiglitz, economist and Nobel Laureate, 4 June 2019.
  • “So what does a declaration of 'climate emergency' actually mean? It puts "government on a 'wartime mobilisation' that places climate change at the centre of policy and planning decisions". Which is exactly what is needed.” — David Ritter, CEO Greenpeace Australia, 27 June 2019
  • "We are literally in a climate emergency, and... we are increasingly hearing that this is the fight of our lives." — Patricia Espinosa, executive secretary of the UNFCCC, 17 June 2019

Big business supports net zero scenarios because it is “growth-as-usual”. The NZ2050 scenarios assume that the world economy will continue to grow for another 30 years as it has in recent decades, such that global production doubles between 2020 and 2050. Given that most resource use has not been significantly decoupled from production, this implies that the human world will become even more destructive of the planet and its finite resources. If at present humans consume 1.7 planet’s worth of resources each year, how much more irreparable damage will be done by 2050, and how many more of Earth’s planetary boundaries will be exceeded? No scenarios focus on lower-growth alternatives.

DOWNLOAD Briefing Paper: "Net zero 2050" is a dangerous illusion.