Ending Fossil Fuels: Why Net Zero is Not Enough: a review

The term ‘net zero’ has become so ubiquitous that it now seems synonymous with the imperative to transition to a sustainable, low carbon economy. A commitment to net zero implies a commitment to winding down the fossil fuel industry — doesn’t it?

Ending Fossil Fuels: Why Net Zero is Not Enough by University of Buffalo professor Holly Jean Buck sounds a wake-up call. Net zero, she argues, is perfectly compatible with the indefinite prolongation of the fossil fuel industry. So long as emissions are managed through carbon trading and sequestration, oil and gas production could continue, forever. This ambiguity is precisely why so many governments and corporations have been so ready to set seemingly bold net zero goals. They allow for the hard work of finally phasing out fossil fuels to recede on an ever shifting horizon. The seductive language of net zero obscures the simple truth that a truly sustainable economy is one in which carbon is not emitted in the first place.

As might be expected of the writer who gave us After Geoengineering, a fair-minded examination of the case for the intelligent use of technologies that may be able to intervene in climate processes to mitigate and so far as possible reverse carbon buildup, which I reviewed last year, Buck’s argument is exhaustively researched, coherent, and wholly unsentimental about the sheer extent of the challenge of ending oil and gas production. It is not, in the end, for me, wholly persuasive. But her new book is a powerful contribution to the energy transition debate that exposes much careless thinking.

Two futures

Buck frames her narrative by asking us to imagine a future world in which fossil fuels persist, and one in which they have been phased out.

The first, ‘Cleaner Fossil World’, is implied by the net zero programmes set out in countless government, NGO and corporate roadmaps — she mentions the International Energy Agency’s Sustainable Development outlook and Shell’s Sky scenario. In this future net zero carbon has been achieved, but a substantial fossil fuel industry remains. Oil is still produced for the aviation, shipping, industrial and agricultural sectors, and for use in petrochemicals. Progress is uneven: the developed world has decarbonised, but the economies of poorer nations are still supported by significant fossil fuel industries. Western decarbonisation has been made possible by large-scale use of carbon capture and sequestration technologies. These are not cost free, requiring land requisitions, sprawling carbon capture and storage infrastructures, and the mass rollout of direct air capture machines. Energy is more expensive, fossil fuel companies passing on much of the cost of new carbon-capturing equipment to consumers. Sustainable energy production depends on the powerful companies and platforms that finance, arrange and perform the industrial services of removing carbon.

Buck contrasts this scenario with that of a ‘Near-Zero World’ in which the hydrocarbons sector has been wound down. Renewable energy has been scaled up to fill the gap, through the full realisation of the potential of solar and wind, and investment in newer technologies such as green hydrogen, storage batteries, and geothermal. The grid has been electrified, electric vehicles have replaced the internal combustion engine, public transportation systems have been radically upgraded, buildings have been retrofitted, and there has been a shift in consumer attitudes regarding the consumption of meat and petroleum-based products. Residual oil and gas production supports the use of certain fertilisers, the development of some plastics, and the supply of energy to steel manufacturers. This carbon is captured by a modest negative emissions infrastructure.

Near-Zero World has been earned by making the hard choices about the future of hydrocarbons now. Cleaner Fossil World is the consequence of ducking those decisions. In this scenario carbon output has been brought under control, but at the expense of the development and ongoing maintenance of a finely-balanced and expensive carbon capture infrastructure.

Buck suggests the concept of net zero ‘does important work: it shifts attention entirely onto emissions, counting and balancing them. This draws attention away from the point of production, which is where we need to … be focusing.’ It allows for a critical ambiguity regarding the long term future of the oil and gas industry. Net zero may prove to be a stepping stone towards a fossil fuel future. But it also provides cover to allow for hydrocarbons to continue indefinitely, re-interpreted as integral part of a circular carbon economy. Residual emissions in a net zero world might actually be substantial, around 20% to 25% of current emissions according to most estimates. And Buck fears that once given a foothold, the industry will dig in: ‘What’s even more plausible is that the world never reaches net zero at all. The structures of power in place would only half-heartedly go about decarbonising fossil fuels and call partway “good enough”.’

Indeed the hydrocarbons industry is already well down the path of rebranding its production as ‘low-carbon’. Carbon capture technologies have yet to be rolled out at anywhere near sufficient scale, but the science is there, and the oil majors are now dedicating significant resources to their development. Enhanced oil recovery techniques allow CO2 to be injected into depleted wells to make production more efficient. Companies are equipping production facilities with blue hydrogen processes that use natural gas to produce non-carbon fuels, and direct air capture machines that suck carbon from the ambient air.

Seeing through net zero

These and other technical fixes fit neatly into the technocratic net zero mindset, which seeks the incremental reduction of emissions through ever more ameliorative methodologies and technologies. The net zero worldview, says Buck, sees the Earth as ‘a spinning ball of flows between atmosphere, soil, plants, oceans’ that can be abstracted, quantified, sliced and diced, parcelled up and assigned to national territories and economic sectors. Different nations have varying capacities for how much they can decarbonise, so carbon markets evolve, complex emissions trading and cap-and-trade systems overseen by an elite class of climate professionals. Intricate sequestration accreditation systems proliferate, premised on an ever growing range of carbon removal technologies.

It’s a flexible, pragmatic approach, but, Buck fears, rather too much so, offering the ‘flexibility to decarbonise what is easiest and to compensate for what is impossible or too challenging to decarbonise’. And it is dangerously dependent on as yet unproven negative emissions techniques. Carbon capture has not been proven at scale. Direct air capture is an elegant and intuitive concept, but is power-hungry: ramping it up to the point at which it will make much of a difference will require huge investment of green energy. Natural sequestration techniques such as afforestation, no-till, crop rotation, regenerative grazing, and blue carbon — the purposing of coastal ecosystems like seagrasses and mangroves as carbon sinks — are highly promising, but nature’s capacity to absorb carbon waste is not unlimited. Sequestration requires land — lots of it.

Buck wants to cut through all this, to recover ‘ways of seeing the problem that don’t have to do with models and metrics’. And that, quite simply, means retiring the industry that produces carbon. The benefits of doing so go beyond climate emergency. ‘When we talk about ending fossil fuels,’ she asks, ‘what part of it are we ending? Are we just talking about the molecules coming out of the ground? I think most of us are talking about the exploitation, the pollution, the outrageous profits and corruption — that’s what we want to end, more so than the substance itself.’

She reminds us that pollution accounts for one in five of all deaths — nearly nine million in 2018 — about one in ten in the United States and Europe and about a third of the deaths in eastern Asia. She argues that the persistence of the fossil fuel industry stifles innovation in the wider energy sector, frustrating the pace of development of alternatives. The rollout of solar energy has advanced rapidly in recent years, but for decades progress was stalled by entrenched oil and gas interests: we are still, for example, a long way from the goal of supplying 20% of the world’s energy through photovoltaic panels set by the Carter administration nearly 50 years ago. And then there is the notorious geopolitics of oil and gas. Countries with petroleum wealth often end up poorer than their counterparts, subject to the ‘resource curse’ that tends to strengthen authoritarian regimes. Perpetual tensions over the supply of oil and gas continue to generate conflict in the Middle East, between Russia and Europe, and along the sea lanes of the South China Sea, where half the world’s oil shipments pass.

Planning the end of fossil fuels

How, then, does Buck suggest we end fossil fuel production? As After Geoengineering demonstrated, she is a realist, acutely aware of the dual nature of the challenge: of ramping up alternatives to fossil fuels while phasing down fossil fuels, and of doing ‘both of these in a synchronised kind of dance, making sure that the clean energy is coming online fast enough so that no one is left without energy’.

Coordinating that will involve rehabilitating the unfashionable concept of planning. Like Andreas Malm in Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency, reviewed here last year, when it comes to the simple imperative that the world’s nations come together to coordinate the energy transition, Buck wants to call a spade a spade. Politicians and climate professionals may call for ‘adaptive cross-sectoral governance to avoid breaching planetary boundaries’, or transformation of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change into a ‘vanguard forum’. But Buck asks: ‘coordinating the movement of biomass, building an extensive grid for renewables, maintaining a detailed carbon accounting system, and doing so without crashing what remains of biodiversity … what does that really look like? A planned economy, as Malm points out.’

Malm summons the stark imagery of wartime planning to communicate the urgency of acting now, together, at scale. Buck prefers a less dramatic vocabulary emphasising that the transition will require the patient execution of a long term strategy. But she is in no doubt that planning is what’s needed, and summoning the political will to develop and execute a strategy will require profound cultural change. And if such coordination is not to be dominated by technocratic elites it will be necessary to build institutions of democratic planning so that everyone can have a meaningful say, whether directly or through delegates.

Any meaningful strategy to wind down fossil fuels will speak a language with which net zero gradualism is uncomfortable: of bans, moratoria, quotas, and public ownership. Buck tries to discern a way forward. Governments already have the significant power to declare moratoria on fossil fuel exploration on state-owned land, as Joe Biden’s election programme promised to do in the US. The remit of such moratoria could then be extended to jurisdictions, as has happened in France, Costa Rica, and Belize. Buck notes that until recently the United States did actually ban the export of crude oil, which was imposed during the 1970s oil crisis. OPEC has applied supply quotas since 1982, using a model based on another US innovation, the Texas Railroad Commission, which has played a historic role in regulating energy in the state of Texas. Governments are already imposing bans to facilitate the transition, specifying dates for the phasing out of internal combustion engines and gas appliances.

Buck thinks a credible plan requires the fine control that only public ownership of the oil and gas sector could afford, a deeply unfashionable notion. But nationalisation runs through fossil fuels history. She notes that during the 1960s and 1970s nearly 80 countries established national oil companies, and by the mid-1970s, state ownership was the norm. Governments reacquainted themselves with public ownership in other sectors during the financial crisis, when Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae, and General Motors were nationalised in the US, and Northern Rock and the Royal Bank of Scotland in the UK. Nationalising the biggest 25 US-based publicly traded oil and gas companies, along with most of the remaining publicly traded coal companies, would cost around $1.15 trillion: expensive, but not prohibitively considering the scale of the pandemic rescue packages, and the Biden administration’s infrastructure programmes.

Public ownership would facilitate the wholesale transformation of the fossil fuel sector into a carbon removal industry. This would involve the outfitting of bioenergy power plants with carbon capture equipment to run biomass carbon removal and storage; the building of direct air capture facilities powered by renewable energy; the building of new CO2 pipelines to transport capture CO2; and the drilling of injection wells into underground rock formations. Buck envisages the creation of ‘a new industry from scratch — and it needs to be planned, not left to develop through markets.’

Being open about being open

Like Malm, Buck is clear sighted about the urgency of the climate crisis, and the need to push through a radical programme commensurate with the scale of the challenge. Her essential insight is accurate: the endless adaptability of net zero scenarios does open a window for the fossil fuel industry, giving it the space to adapt to a world in which positive and negative emissions are held in precarious balance.

But those who see value in the net zero perspective might respond that such open-endedness is the whole point. Net zero offers a way forward in a world in which it is simply not going to be possible to wind down the fossil fuel sector within the limited time we have available to avert possible climate catastrophe.

Buck’s fair-minded presentation of the sheer scale of the challenge of retiring the industry powerfully illustrates the very difficulties that the net zero philosophy evolved to address. As she notes, the world remains profoundly dependent on fossil fuels, which still provide more than 84% of primary energy, and renewables only 5%. Some 770 million people still have no access to electricity, and 2.6 billion don’t have energy for clean cooking. We don’t just depend on oil and gas for energy: we use hydrocarbons for petrochemical feedstocks used for clothes, packaging, medicine, cleaning, and transport infrastructures.

As Buck half acknowledges, winding down our dependence on oil and gas involves cultural change that would seem to go beyond what is politically possible. Our worldview is suffused with ‘petronostalgia’, the fear that the prospect of giving up fossil fuels asks us to give up too much, in terms of jobs, quality of life, and national prestige, a sentiment exploited by Donald Trump and other populists. She notes that technological solutionism, the blue sky optimism that we can simply innovate climate change away, represents ‘a more liberal version of this grasping-in-the-face-of-decline that looks to innovation as the remedy’.

Buck knows that taking the fossil fuel sector into public ownership would depend on the most profound shift in political tectonics. And she recognises that public ownership of oil and gas companies, even if could be achieved, would create as many problems as opportunities. Over half of global oil production and known reserves is owned by national oil companies that for the most part want to ramp up production to secure revenues for national treasuries, not end it.

One of the toughest — and most disturbing — challenges for climate progressives, again presented unflinchingly by Buck, is the looming prospect of a renewables backlash as the mass rollout of solar and wind impacts ever more visibly on our lives. She quotes a remarkable study by Princeton University highlighting the sheer extent of the land and resources required for a renewables sector capable of supporting the electrification of everything. Building 5.7 terawatts of wind and solar capacity would cost $6.2 trillion, and take up more than one million square kilometres, an area equivalent to the combined land areas of Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, and Oklahoma. Solar would require space equivalent to the size of West Virginia. The entire Atlantic Coast would be lined with offshore wind farms.

Would it be possible to rollout such an infrastructure, in the face of contestation, when future energy projections are premised on significant continued fossil fuels production? Current energy forecasts suppose the production of 40 gigatons of CO2 per year to 2040: meeting the Paris 1.5C pathway without negative emissions provisions would require that production be cut to 15 gigatons. Unlikely.

Buck has some harsh words about the motivations of climate professionals, to whom she refers as ‘optimists raised with a sense of feasibility that is socialised to be expansive in some regards and constrained in others’, whose ‘thinking has been shaped by research at high-profile institutions which the fossil fuel industry has had a part in funding, as well as by research at institutions like the IEA, and by the scenarios work done by companies like Shell’.

Maybe. But perhaps many of them are well aware of the compromises inherent in net zero programmes. Perhaps they pursue that course because it is the best chance we have to get close to the Paris targets, given the political possibilities of the world in which we find ourselves.

Buck is right to insist that net zero should not be taken as an excuse to put the fossil fuel sector on indefinite life support. It’s an industry whose time has come. Her book highlights the inconsistencies and obfuscations that the endlessly adaptable grammar of net zero allows. But it would seem that that adaptability is what is needed now, and for some time to come, if we are to make progress, however compromised.

Ending Fossil Fuels: Why Net Zero is Not Enough by Holly Jean Buck is published by Verso Books. Photo by Kevin Harris on Unsplash.

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Justin Reynolds

Justin Reynolds

A London-based business writer and essayist. See justinreynoldswriter.com and @_justinwriter.