Word of the Week: ‘Net zero’



Word of the Week: ‘Net zero’

Google has a policy to ban advertisements that appear in searches if they contain content that, according to a Google representative who spoke to Reuters, “states climate change is a hoax, the Earth’s climate is not warming, or that there is no clear scientific consensus on climate change, as well as claims that there is no evidence that carbon emissions or human activity contribute to climate change or global warming.” Each of these types of claims is damnably wrong, which, as far as justifications for banning speech go, is a pretty good one. According to the Reuters piece, pegged to the news of the recent United Nations “Conference of the Parties” in Egypt, also known as COP27, just banning this kind of ad is not solving the problem that Google is concerned with. That’s because the problem in question is that some words, some place on the internet, might mislead someone.

The article is titled “Gaming Google: Oil firms use search ads to greenwash, study says,” and it suggests that oil companies use ads that claim they are “net zero” or other marketing terms that sound climate-friendly and then pay to have those terms show up at the top of Google searches. Which is true, though your intellectual defenses should be up when a study is done by something called the “Center for Countering Digital Hate,” a nongovernmental organization that is a leading censorship justifier. “These findings that fossil fuel companies like BP, Exxonmobil, Chevron, Shell & Aramco are buying up search terms like ‘eco-friendly companies’ & ‘net zero’ should worry us all,” tweeted London Mayor Sadiq Khan.

The term “net zero” is in vogue among some very powerful people. The Net Zero Coalition at the U.N., per its website, involves “more than 70 countries, including the biggest polluters — China, the United States, and the European Union — have set a net-zero target, covering about 76% of global emissions.” Unfortunately, the concept is fundamentally incoherent, as much of what really happens is that in order to meet net-zero pledges, rich people, firms, and countries keep emitting but buy carbon offsets, which are abstractions that have been securitized and sold to people in exchange for guilt-relief. Many carbon credits, including the ones you can buy for an added fee alongside airline ticket purchase, are tokens representing the photosynthetic absorption of carbon dioxide by trees that happened in the late aughts. Each unit of the absorption that, again, already happened is packaged as a credit that can be sold over and over. You know, like a scam?

That’s how much of the negative side of the ledger in the netting out of climate accounting is done. But global climate change doesn’t care who emits and where, being a global phenomenon. It doesn’t matter if you are “net zero.” It just matters how much total carbon (and equivalent) emissions are entering the atmosphere in absolute terms.

Like so much of the NGO world’s policy preferences these days, this is really just a language game. “Net zero” is actually itself an example of corporate greenwashing in that, as a piece of language, it is downstream of the idea of the “carbon footprint,” which is itself the product of an oil company advertising campaign. But don’t just take my word for it: As related by the Guardian, in 2004, British Petroleum, via the advertising firm Ogilvy and Mather, “first promoted and soon successfully popularized the term ‘carbon footprint’ in the early aughts. The company unveiled its ‘carbon footprint calculator.’”

Thinking about how much carbon- and greenhouse effect-producing gases people use has its genesis in this ad campaign, which is exactly the corporate “greenwashing” that is now apparently a sinister threat Reuters calls “climate disinformation,” something so untoward that Google has pledged not to make money from it. So, to enforce the U.N.’s net-zero agenda, we have to stop the disinformation spread of greenwashing, which “net zero” is itself an instance of.

Though climate change and climate science are real, so much of the NGO and policy space is just out to make money by mincing words. Take the time to distinguish between hard science and hot air.

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