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

A new book by Holly Jean Buck exposes the common assumption that a commitment to net zero implies a commitment to end the fossil fuel industry. Is another way possible?

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.

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.

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’.

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.

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